It was about to rain. Wind was tussling with the dusty landscape, dragging the normally frozen picture into abnormal shapes, whilst the vivid palette of orange, red, and robin blue was dulling and darkening into murky brown and sinister grey. His skin was starting to prickle. Goosebumps were rising, hard to place for which reason. Jason wanted to scratch his arm, take away the unpleasant sensation but he didn’t want to let go of Filip’s hand, so he ignored the prickle and squeezed his friend’s palm tighter. How long had it been now? Hours for sure and Jason was now having a hard time trying to rationalise why the wait wasn’t over. It was an emergency. THEY were an emergency service. So why the hell weren’t they here?
A sudden thud made Jason’s hope leap. Finally. He turned – to yell.
“Over here! We’re over here!”
But the words never made it out. The noise was simply a skidding rock as a wallaby bounded by and over the distant crest. Jason couldn’t help but smile. Had Filip been awake he’d have been ecstatic and most likely trying to follow it. He never did get over things. Always excited, always seeing that first time spark every time. It was annoying. Jason would have to tell him what he had missed. He’d have to do a Filip impersonation too. The whole geeky Famous Five “Let’s go!” thing. It’d make Fil laugh, a lethal combination of hyena and what a ticklish turkey must sound like. It cracked Jason up.
He swallowed. Suddenly it was hard to think about that laugh. He glanced down at Filip’s face. What he could see amid the rock was pale and where the eyelids had been tightly wrapped against the sun a little while ago they were now loose. Still shut but no longer attempting to push away the day. The tiny rivulets of blood that emerged from his hair had long since dried up and his lips were swollen and beginning to crack down the middle. Jason reached across and grabbed one of the water bottles the girl had left. Soaking a corner of his t-shirt, he then very gently dabbed Filip’s mouth before twisting the material and letting the drops fall into the small gap between the chipped teeth. Rubbing his throat like he’d seen on TV, Jason tried to think up a funny story to tell him. But he simply drew a blank.
When he was seven, Jason had escaped his mum’s eye and gone exploring down the street. He’d recently gotten the awesome slingshot that everyone at school was after, so he’d decided to go and try and kill a pigeon in the park. It wasn’t that he was particularly into killing things. But he now owned a weapon and it felt wrong not to explore its full lethal potential. Plus, everyone hated pigeons. His granny called them rats with wings and she loved almost everything, even spiders she’d catch and set free. So he didn’t feel guilty. He’d found some good rocks and brought a bag to carry his bounty home. Simba the dog would enjoy it, he had thought. It was a long way to the park though and halfway there, Jason had gotten bored and decided to have a little practice. Crouched down by a parked car, he’d lined up his aim. The target was the slightly open window of another car on the other side of the road. Risky, as he could break a window but, giggling away, Jason had decided he liked that feeling.
“Ready!” he yelled happily to the air. “Aim!….FIRE!”
Letting the band go, the rock flew beautifully: dead on target. Unfortunately, at that exact moment some boy had decided to cycle by, and even more unfortunately his head became dead on target. And more unfortunately still, as Jason had explained to the boy’s mum’s feet whilst she held his arm, the rock hadn’t stopped flying and had hit him in the face. Jason was grounded for a month and lost his lovely slingshot. He also had to go and see the person he’d injured with as much chocolate as his pocket money could buy, which Jason had thought highly stupid. If a person has a broken face why give him stuff to chew?
The boy was Filip. He’d had to get stitches in his lip. His skin also turned a weird purple and two of his teeth were chipped. Jason had tried not to but ended up laughing at his appearance and Filip had laughed too. With that ridiculous sound ringing in his ears, Jason had gone back. Before long Jason’s escapade, which was Filip’s first chance to make a friend since moving from Sweden, was merely a funny tale in the fabric of their devoted friendship.
After graduating university, the two of them had decided that they needed a trip to celebrate. Following much debate, they’d settled on the standard South East-Asia and Australia route. Jason had wanted to go somewhere a bit more original but Filip had argued that it must be popular for a reason, that the countryside was beautiful and there were lots of cool sports available. When that didn’t sway him, he’d also suggested that a standard backpacker route would mean lots of backpacker women.
“And backpacker women are always up for a good time, Jace!”
That’d done it.
Asia had been amazing and so far Australia was pretty stunning too. They’d already made it from Sydney around the east coast and up to Darwin before dropping down to Alice for a proper outback experience. Giving themselves a week, they’d decided to go off the map a little, and spend some time at random out-of-the-way campsites for some hiking. Today they’d gotten up early and decided to rock climb up a face nearby to see the view. Filip had wanted to do some sketching from a height.
“Guess you won’t be doing any sketching today mate,” Jason muttered to him. “Screw it, once you get sorted, I’ll come back and get you a photo so that you can sketch it anyway. That do? …Fil?”
Jason shifted his weight so that he could draw his face up closer to his friend’s.
Jason didn’t know what he was asking him. He didn’t even know why he was asking him. Filip hadn’t spoken since belting out Talking Heads as he attempted some daft dance shuffle. He’d been singing and chuckling and then he was slipping and falling and very suddenly silent. His head trapped between the scorched rocks and his body flattened against the parched dust. At first they’d expected him to move, at least a little. It hadn’t seemed that far a drop, yet on closer inspection it became clear that the angle he’d fallen at had forced his head backwards into a gap that that gentle persuasion would not be able to maneuver him out of. There was also the worry that he’d damaged his back. They knew enough about first aid to agree that he needed someone who understood exactly what they were doing to free him safely.
The girl they’d met the night before had gone to raise the alarm. She returned a little later to explain that nobody was coming. Yet. The emergency services were refusing to leave Alice Springs until they had proof of Fil’s insurance. Too many uninsured travelers had been collected by expensive ambulances in the past, unable to pay their huge debt back easily. As Filip didn’t have a passport, there was no medical agreement. In other words they needed paperwork. Jason had frantically babbled instructions on how their insurance could be proved before she ran back.
That had been in the morning. Then had come the noon heat with Jason frantically trying to shield his friend. He’d ended up removing his own t-shirt for a while to make a sort of canopy around Filip’s head. His back would blister but at least Filip wouldn’t look like a rotten tomato.
It was now distinctly afternoon, and still no help. Clearly something was going wrong back at the lodge. Jason didn’t know what to do. He desperately wanted to go back and see what was happening. He knew there was very little he could do for Filip right now. He’d only be gone forty minutes, at most, and it’d put his mind at ease to know how much longer they had to wait. Yet every time he went to move the blood rushed to his head. He felt faint and just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t bear to leave his friend lying in the desert broken like that. Filip would tease him for being such a girl later, but he felt he needed to be there.
The wind was scraping his skin. The sky appeared to be rolling together and folding in on itself; clouds were building and covering that blemish free blue that was all they’d seen since they arrived in the outback. The temperature was definitely dropping which was weird. Jason wasn’t used to being chilly anymore. In the distance a bird was screeching and plummeting onto something unsuspecting. A crow cawed a response. Jason shivered. The bird sounded like it was crying. Pleading. Vaguely he remembered the folk tale some guide had mentioned. How the crow was supposed to be a mother searching for her dead children. When they’d first arrived in Australia, he and Filip had joked about how whiney it sounded. They’d been woken up by the call on numerous mornings and spent most of those fresh morning minutes impersonating them to make the other laugh.
Looking at his friend’s face, Jason tried to smile. Maybe project the sunny image into Filip somehow. See Fil, he thought, I’m still here. I’m still happy. You don’t scare me. It was a rubbish attempt so let’s get up and go, yeah?
A faint rumble began somewhere in the back of Jason’s awareness. He realized it was thunder. It hadn’t rained once since they’d been in the desert. The rangers said it hadn’t rained in over four months. Today of all days, Jason thought. Why today? It’s almost as if, he unexpectedly thought , the world knows today is a rough day. That it needs a good wail.
Jason began to laugh at this fanciful thought. His head fell back towards the grumbling expanse and deep guttural breaths began to force their way through. One grunt. Two. Three and then on four something caught. The air stuck inside his throat and quite simply wouldn’t come out. He opened his eyes and stared up. One blink. Two. And then the first one rose to the surface and gently fell away. The others followed and then the air stopped sticking and suddenly he was screaming.
Loud. Raw. He screamed until he could feel the skin in his throat rip. Until he felt his veins would explode and all the while the tears streamed down into his open mouth and onto his chest.
The pieces of Jason’s conscious thought had finally all fallen together, lying down to tell him what he’d known but not seen. The hand he’d been holding. His friend’s hand.
It was cold.
Slowing to a halt, Jason struggled to take in a ragged breath and pulled his gaze down from the sky to Filip. Ever so gently his body moved and his forehead sank until it rested onto the piece of Filip that was supposed to move up and down.
“Filip,” Jason whispered into his friend’s chest. “Filip.” Whisper turned to plead. “Fil…”
His eyes started to snake up from chest to neck to chin to closed eyes. His heart jumped. Next to Filip’s eye was wet. A tear. He’s crying!
“Oh God, Fil,” he muttered. “I was so scared then I –”
Jason stopped. There was a tear on his forehead. How did that get there? As if in answer another tear appeared, this time on his ear. He gulped, suddenly tasting acid.
The tears weren’t coming from Filip.
Not from him.
The singular thought bounced around his head and into his stomach. As it bounced, more tears fell. The sound of their landing echoed across the rocks. The harder they fell the louder the sound until it seemed to Jason that the entire world was rushing by. His muscles let go and his body relaxed. Lying half on half off, Jason held his friend. He held his friend as the rain began.
Suddenly and furiously.
Jane Holm asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work