“Mummy look! It’s that girl.”
Amber turned just in time to see a woman fumbling desperately to cover her daughter’s mouth, her husband and son bumping into them as they exited the restaurant. The little girl’s eyes stared wide over her mother’s hand at the dishevelled girl in pink pyjamas, her feet bare and muddy, her top stained in blood and her hand dangling three dead rats by their tails.
Amber stood stunned and silent, shocked at the reaction to her appearance and upset by the turn her life had taken, yet more excited than ever.
Billy stepped from the alley’s shadows looking from Amber to the family. A muscular Aboriginal boy with the skinned head of a kangaroo for a hat, his gruesome chest scars shining menacingly under the lights. Raising his own brace of rats for the family to admire with a big cheesy grin he said,
“Good tucker, mate!”
The woman shrieked and turned tail, dragging her daughter across the busy street by the wrist.
Billy watched on, totally dumbfounded. The little girl turned back for another look, her feet barely skimming the bitumen as a taxi screeched to a halt, its horn blaring.
“I don’t think they like rats, Billy,” Amber shrugged.
“Don’t know why, they got plenty fat on them here.”
“What were you doing back there?”
“Setting a trap for a fat one. This way,” he said, leading Amber down the street.
“Yeah, one for my dad.
“In the bush.
“Is he coming here too?”
“Nah, but I wanna take one back for him.”
“When are you going back to the bush?”
“Don’t know. Sometime.”
“What’s it like living in the bush?”
“Yeah, it’s pretty noisy here. Where are we going?”
“Vinnies!” Amber declared in surprise.
“They got enough pants here to cover every bare bum in the country,” Billy said with an imitation of Turbo that made him smile at the memory.
“What about wet bums?” Amber retorted as she dropped her rats and upturned a bag in delight.
“Don’t matter, just gotta be a bum.”
“Well I got one of them and it needs a new pair of pants.”
Billy dropped his rats and stopped to watch Amber rummage through the pile, holding clothes against her body and twisting her hips to see how they looked. He liked the way she picked things up gently with long, slender fingers. The way she folded them before placing them back down again, instead of just chucking them to the side as the men of his clan would have done. Her thin, pink, expressive lips considered a white tank top and then smiled. The memory of her beautiful eyes held him in a dreamy world of wonder for a moment before he came out of it and found her looking directly at him. Without realising it, he’d been staring but he couldn’t look away, lost in a deep, blue, hypnotic, trance that he wanted to swim in forever.
“Aren’t you going to get some too?” she laughed.
He smiled shyly.
“Nah, I got plenty.”
“Check this out!” It was a white zip–up hoody that she tried on and snuggled into its warmth. “What do you reckon?”
She liked his simple, boyish answer. Then she found a towel to twirl her damp hair into.
Billy was sad to see it go.
She flipped the hoody over the top of the towel to hide it and looked to see what he thought of that too.
He just smiled and nodded.
She liked that response too.
A nylon backpack piqued Billy’s interest with its wide assortment of zippers. Amber adjusted the straps and tried it on for size.
“Cool hey?” she said, handing it to him.
“Yeah,” he said, marvelling at the plastic zippers and inspecting all the little compartments.
It was Amber’s turn to be fascinated now — his, “Oohs” and, “Aahs” at little discoveries, his close inspection of the strap adjustment clasp, figuring out how it worked and how impressed he became upon seeing the shoulder strap lengthen or shorten.
“Your bag’s cooler,” she said.
“Cooler? What’s cooler?”
“It looks the best. Everyone’s got backpacks like this but no one’s got a cool kangaroo bag like yours.”
Billy didn’t know what to say — as cool as she thought his bag was he had no doubt that hers was way cooler.
“I like yours,” he eventually said.
“Thanks. I’m gonna put heaps of things in it. It matches my top too, hey?”
“Yeah, looks good.”
Amber carried on, stuffing it with loads of little treasures.
Then a flash of movement caught Billy’s eye. It was a greedy cat struggling to fit two of their rats into its mouth. Billy whipped off his sling, fed a stone into the pouch and drove it fair into the thief’s head. He turned, full of excitement and ready to bask in the glow of Amber’s praise but she was completely oblivious, absorbed in her hunt for treasure. Billy decided to be casual about it, figuring she’d think he was way cleverer if she discovered he’d made a kill without her even knowing about it.
She was inspecting a pair of blue, denim, knee–length shorts. She half turned towards Billy, paused thoughtfully for a moment and then squeezed into them over the top of her pyjama pants. Billy was waiting for the parade but she just continued casually with her back towards him. Then she excitedly held up what looked to Billy to be a mess of blue cord. He tried to be excited but he must have had a dumb look on his face because she explained that it was a bikini.
“Oh. Cool!” He didn’t know it at the time but come tomorrow, he would think they were the coolest things he’d ever seen.
He made a discovery of his own that he was particularly proud of — a hardwood broom handle. It was a bit short for a spear, but he found the maker’s skill at smoothing it out and making it straight very impressive.
Suddenly Amber screamed and leapt backwards. She’d picked up a fresh bag from the pile but she wasn’t expecting what she found. The drunk that Billy had seen earlier sat up like a corpse rising from a coffin of Vinnie’s bags. Amber hurled her bag and hit him square in the face. He yelled drunken half–asleep abuse at no one in particular, snuggled his arms around the bag like a teddy bear and lay back down again, snoring before his head had even disappeared within his crypt.
Billy cracked up laughing and was in hysterics as he looked over at Amber. She wasn’t laughing at all. He stopped, instantly, the fear of her getting angry and leaving filtering through every frozen muscle in his body.
Then Amber burst out laughing and pointed a teasing finger at his frightened expression.
He collapsed to his knees and sighed in relief. Then he tried to laugh but the scariest moment of his life had turned him to jelly.
“You shoulda seen your face!” Amber laughed with a slap on his shoulder. Suddenly she jumped back and fell over a bunch of bags.
Billy looked to see what had frightened her and saw the feral cat laying beside him. He cracked up laughing again while fingering the stone from its skull.
“Breakfast,” he grinned in victory.
“Oh my God!” Amber moaned.
“Don’t you like cats?”
“I like turning feral cats into yabby bait. But eating them for breakfast? I don’t think so!”
“We can save some rats for breakfast instead if ya want?”
“Oh my God.”
“Are you still hungry?”
“You gonna like my cooking, Amber. I’m a good cook!” He threaded one of the cat’s hind legs through a hole he’d cut into its opposite leg, tied the rats together by their tails, threaded the lot onto his broomstick and slung it over his shoulder.
Amber didn’t say anything, too tired to think about her only option for a meal after running through the rain for two days, or to be self–conscious about the strange stares they were getting as they crossed the road. A black kangaroo with his haul of fat rats, a feral cat and a dirty white girl.
“I like yabbies too,” Billy said to break the silence as they wandered through the darkness of the park.
“I like them on toast with scrambled eggs.”
“What’s a scramble?”
“It’s not a thing. It’s how you make the eggs. You mix them all together and cook them.”
“It’s better than a cat for breakfast I can tell you that much.”
“Can you make me toast sometime?”
“Wish I could make you some now!”
“Are rats nice on toast?”
“Oh my God.”
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