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The Bushfire Boys

by Charles Well

Chapter 4


Time moved on as time does, and before midnight the windmill of the gods did eventually turn in favor of the boys on Oliver's Ark. It happened quicker than expected as the fire stalked on. The winds had remained fierce from the time the blaze reached the top of the spillway, and just a few hours later the bushfire front was 10 kilometers further down the shoreline of the King George Lake Reservoir and burning itself deeper into the Tatungalung National Park. All around were seething embers in the smoldering logs and remaining tree trunks. These would probably continue to burn for days, or until there was rain, but it appeared the worst was over in this section of the state forrest this fire season.

All four boys were absolutely shattered by what they had experienced and Jack agreed to remain on watch while the others got some sleep. It was 11:45 PM and he promised to wake Jarrah around 3:00 to take over as lookout.

"Happy New Year guys, in 15 minutes. But I don't have the energy to see this one out," said Jarrah looking at his watch.

"Me too!" responded James, "But we didn't miss anything. The fireworks came early this year.

"Too right!" added Oliver with a giggle. "That was one mega bumper fireworks show I'll never forget if I see a hundred New Years."

Jack got himself a Coke and settled back in a deck chair at the rear of the boat. Red Dog and True Blue settled down next to him. The wind had calmed again, a mere wisp of the fury from before and blowing away to the east for now. With the fire kilometers away, darkness descended around the brightly lit houseboat that bobbed up and down slightly in the barely discernible waves. Jack couldn't see the shoreline, but it was safe to assume most of the highly combustable fuel that fed the fire around here was consumed. Like lightening, bushfires never strike twice in the same place, or at least not for a good five or more years. He relaxed for the first time in hours. Not until dawn tomorrow morning would they get an idea of the full extent of the devastation. How much property damage had been done and how many native species of animals had been wiped out?

There was the mental stress as well. It would take days and perhaps weeks, Jack knew to sort out what had happened that day. An hour before, the boys were faced with the very real prospect of a horrific and painful death by fire. As he raced around the houseboat stamping out sparks and feeling faint from the heat, Jack recalled the lessons from history class about the fate of witches and religious dissidents that had been burned at the stake for their supposed crimes in the Middle Ages. For a time there tonight, he understood how they probably felt before the flames touched their flesh. A barely controllable sense of dread and powerlessness. Why he thought of those morbid stories was beyond him now, but he guessed what the four boys experience would leave an indelible mark on each of them. They had stared into hell and at the face of the devil and lived to tell the tale. They had been lucky. He knew there were others around Australia, for now the Burning Country, that were not so blessed. How could knowing that not change you?

Jack thought about his family and sighed deeply. In spite of everything that happened tonight, the problem was still there and loomed larger now. He had no doubt they would be "rescued" in the morning and then he'd have to face him. He recalled what the Campbell brothers had revealed earlier about their parents and how they cared little for the presence of their sons. Why was it that all families seemed so fucked up? Jack regretted his threat now "to slap them around a bit." He never would have done it of course, not with his life experience, but why had he even felt the need to make the threat? He'd been working with James and Oliver all afternoon and evening. They were good kids, they worked hard, and their hearts were in the right place. He had got to know and respect them. He thought about the comment he'd made about having them as brothers after the dingo incident. Had he meant it at the time? Perhaps not, but he'd changed his mind. They'd both make fine siblings. His own two sisters had developed their own defense strategies for dealing with life at home. As far as Jack could tell, these mostly involved putting the blame on him for whatever went wrong and playing, "the daddy's little princesses card."

He prepared himself mentally for tomorrow when he'd have to face his father. Nothing would happen immediately. It never did. But his old man would be super pissed at him for disobeying the directive to remain in town and embarrassing him in front of everyone. Jack would need to pay the piper soon enough.

Mr. Ian Hamilton, Jack's father, drank. Sometimes he drank to excess. It was a deeply held family secret, but when the stars were misaligned in just the wrong way, the friendly and ever helpful banker transformed from the ever jovial businessman figure of a Doctor Jekyll and became the dangerous and unpredictable alter ego of a Mr. Hyde. In the early years it was his wife, Maggie, that was the subject of his ire, but more recently Jack had come under special attention. Eighteen months ago the man savagely beat his son about the head and broke his left arm. The father, wife, and son all swore that Jack had injured himself falling from a tree. Some at the clinic in town strongly doubted this explanation, but Jack consoled himself with the $2,000 dirt bike that suddenly came his way.

Since then, Mr. Hamilton had been cautious and a serious incident of that magnitude had never been repeated. There were still the occasional slaps across the face or a bash over the head with a Math or Science book for homework undone. But Jack had become philosophical about these little run-ins with his old man. They hurt, but not that much. He'd got worse beatings over the last year from his nemesis, Harry Flouch, the 15-year-old bully from the 10th grade. Flouch was a big, fat, pimply faced teen who enjoyed taking out his insecurity on younger or weaker boys. Until a few months ago, one of his favorite targets had been Jarrah Hunter who he liked to call "that stupid, fuck'n black boong." Every time Flouch uttered these words, Jack intervened with his fists in support of his mate, and it always ended in blood. But over the past few months, the older teen had been keeping a lower profile. Jack was hoping Flouch had finally got the message that the two 13-year-olds could hurt him just as much as he hurt them.

The 13-year-old decided that his life was messy and complicated. But then, perhaps everyone's reality was. His father had his dependence on alcohol, his mother, who he regarded as weak and ineffectual for not standing up to her husband, had survived in a loveless marriage for years and was forced to live with a man who constantly put her down and eliminated any dignity she might have once had. And it didn't end with his family. His best mate Jarrah was bullied because of his race, and the Campbell brothers had parents who didn't care about them. Even his worst enemy, Harry Flouch, had to live with the fact he was fat, ugly, stupid and had no friends. It didn't seem to matter who you were, life was pretty much fucked. Although Jack was determined to remain on guard, his body rebelled, and he slowly drifted off into a fitful sleep.

A noise woke Jack with a start several hours later. He looked up to see Jarrah coming out onto the boat deck.

"Anything to report?" asked his mate pulling up another folding chair.

"What? Oh god! I think I fell asleep. I need to check…"

"Don't bother," said Jarrah. "I saw you out here, dead to the world, so I went around and did an inspection. No burning stuff anywhere, and even the koalas are quiet now."

"What time is it?" asked Jack.

"About 4:00 AM. Dawn in an hour or so."

"Yep! Did you get any sleep?"

"A bit," said Jarrah.

Neither boy spoke for several minutes.

"I guess it's my turn to take over the watch and you can get some sleep. It's been one hell of a day." When his friend didn't get up or say anything, Jarrah continued. "A few times there I wasn't sure if we'd even make it."

"Yep," Jack said. "I was just thinking that. It was touch and go for a while."

"The kids are asleep and I don't think we'll see them until well into the morning."

Jack laughed out loud. "You sound like my mom when she speaks to my father and she doesn't know I'm listening. 'The kids are asleep'," he repeated in a mocking tone. "You make it sound like they're our children."

Then he slapped his mate across the arm. "You're not my type you know," he simpered in a camp high falsetto voice. Both boys laughed, but quickly grew quiet as they looked out at the blood red sky reflected in the smoke on the distant hill tops. Jack sensed his joke had touched a nerve.

"Didn't you feel it?" Jarrah eventually half whispered. "In a way they are our kids. At least for a day and night we were responsible for them. They looked to us for safety and protection, to organize their food, and tell them what to do. That's a parent's job. For a day and a night we were responsible for protecting younger, weaker human beings. When we met the roos, when we were rescuing the koalas, and when the fire came through. Didn't you sense it? James and Oliver were looking to us. We didn't panic, so they didn't."

"Jeez mate. You're starting to creep me out here. Next you'll be wanting to set up home sweet home. If we do, I gotta be the dad though. You can be the mom."

Jack laughed at his own joke. But for once, Jarrah didn't. He just sat back in the chair, looked disappointed somehow, and stared at the distant sky. It was hard to tell whether the light from the east was the first glimmer of dawn or glow from more distant fires. He looked at his watch. It was only 4:10. The sun didn't rise at this time of the year until around 5:45 AM.

"Hey! It's New Year's Day already," said Jack attempting to make an unstated apology to his friend for his previous comments. "Welcome to the second decade of the 21st century. As James said, what did you think of the New Year's fireworks this time? Pretty awesome, ah?"

Jarrah remained silent and stared off into the distance.

Jack looked over at his friend. "Sorry for what I said before. Yes, I felt it too. When Oliver was staring down at that pack of dingoes, I thought he was a goner. The first thing I thought was what would I do if they attacked him. It never occurred for me to run and protect myself. We've had a bit of first aid training with the CFA Juniors, but I must have skipped the day they covered what to do when facing a possible dingo attack."

Both boys laughed together this time – a mutually comfortable release of tension.

"The second thing I thought was how was I going to explain what happened to Nana Campbell and even the kid's parents. But thank god you were there. Jarrah, you know you're one bloody useful mate to have about. Driving houseboats or dealing with dingo attacks. No one better."

Jarrah didn't comment, but sat back in his chair once again. True Blue growled in his sleep. Even the dogs were having bad dreams.

A few minutes later Jack looked over at his friend. "We're too young to be thinking like this. It isn't fair. Hopefully, tomorrow we can get back to being regular 13-year-olds again. I've got enough other worries to think about."

"Will you father beat you again?"

"What? How do you… No, he…"

"Jack I know about the time your father broke your arm."

"He never…Who told you?"

"Nobody told me. I was hiding up in the choir loft at the church. It was one of the days Fatty Flouch was trying to rearrange my face. You were in hospital that day and I guess he figured it was the perfect time to sort out the boong. Well, I was sitting behind the organ when I heard someone come in. I thought it was Fatty, but it turned out to be your mom. She was with my father, and I guess he took her in there to get some privacy. They had no idea I was there. Anyway, she told him the whole thing. About your dad's drinking and how he had hit you in the face and head, and broke your arm, and that's why you were in hospital."

"You must think I'm a real chicken-shit," said Jack, not looking at the other boy.

"What? Are you crazy? Why would I think any such thing? You were 11 years old at the time and he was a grown man. What could anyone do in that situation? Do you know how many times Flouch beat me up before you started coming to my rescue. And Flouch is only 3 years older than us."

Neither boy spoke for several minutes. "Why do some people like to hurt those weaker than them? It's not right, but it happens all the time. Still, it ain't right."

Jarrah agreed. "Sorry if you're embarrassed because I know. I didn't mean to. I should have told you a long time ago that I knew, but I was afraid of what you might do. I dunno (don't know), get mad at me."

"But I don't think your old man will do anything. Your Uncle Mike knows as well. Your mother told him. But Sarge had already guessed. Your mom told my dad that as a Senior Sergeant of police, he'd seen his fair share of family abuse cases in his 12 years of service. He went to your father and said, 'If you ever touch that boy again, I'll be running you in and charging you with every offence I can think of. And don't for one moment think I won't just because we're family. Maggie, Jack and the girls are my family too.'"

Jack had not been told any of that and knew it would take time to work through the implications. His mom had done things to defend him and his uncle too. He felt relief that there were people in his corner. But he felt guilt as well. He had misjudged his mother and he'd need to do something about that. He hadn't been as kind to her as he should have been. He looked over at Jarrah to see his reaction, but it was clear his friend had more to say. He stood up and was pacing up and down.

A minute later, he slumped into the chair with a loud plop. "I think you know, I've never been sure where I belong. Am I aboriginal or am I part of the white man's culture? My family situation is crazy. I've got three sets of grandparents for god's sake. Half the kids I know don't have any."

"What do you mean – three sets?" asked Jack.

"You know… You've met them all. There's my mom's parents, my father's adoptive parents, and then my father's real parents."

"Oh yeah, sorry," said Jack, "of course."

Jarrah's father had been part of the "stolen generation." (Children of Australian Aboriginal descent who were removed from their families by the Australian Federal and State government agencies and church missions right up to the 1970s). He was adopted by Christian missionaries when he was 3. He knew nothing of his heritage and hadn't been reconciled with his biological parents, Jandamarra and Jedda, until his late 30s. Although the Reverend Sam Hunter cared little for aboriginal traditions, it was Jarrah's mother, a woman of Scottish descent that pushed him to learn more.

"You should see us when we all get together. Talk about the oddest group you're ever likely to see. Anglican missionaries, Presbyterian followers of John Calvin, and my father's birth parents who still believe in the Dreaming."

"Well, more power to the Dreaming I say," said Jack. "It certainly saved our asses today with the dingoes. I had no idea what to do."

Jarrah ignored the comment. "My father looks more aboriginal than me, but he pushes in the direction of Christianity. And they don't come much whiter than my mom, but she keeps wanting me to link up with my grandfather and his people. Then there are those like Flouch who treat me like shit because I'm darker than them, but kids like you never even mention it."

Jack thought for a while. This was important and he didn't want to get it wrong. "Why do you have to choose? I mean, why do you have to be one or the other? Remember what Miss Karras, our English teacher, told us. 'Most of life isn't a binary choice – a zero or a one. Living is full of shades of grey. Maybe fifty of them."

Both boys laughed. Neither had read the book, but they'd heard of it.

"If I was you, I'd be proud of my native heritage. Your ancestors roamed this land 40,000 years before my lot made an appearance. You've got more right to call yourself an Aussie than guys like Flouch. He knows that. I'm 6th generation and my ancestors came from England and Ireland. We always go to my Aunt Mary's on St. Patrick's Day and she likes to remind us where we're from. But that's it. I'm no more Irish, than my mother, my grandfather, or my great grandfather. Or you try telling Jimmy Nguyen he's not Aussie and you'd better be prepared for blood. I reckon it's like the old Seekers song we had to sing for the Christmas Show in 6th grade. Do you remember?

'We are one, but we are many

And from all the lands on earth we come

We share a dream and sing with one voice:

I am, you are, we are Australian.'

"I guess that's it," said Jack "I am, you are, we are Australian. It doesn't make any difference to me if your ancestors came here in 1850, the 1970s or 40,000 years ago. We've all got to make our way in the world of the 21st century."

"Thanks," said Jarrah. "But I don't fit in… for other stuff as well."

Jack looked over at his friend. He was petrified, and words flowed like water over the falls.

"I need to tell you something. I need to… thank you for being my friend and helping with the bullies. I mean Flouch. I don't…"

"Don't worry about it," answered Jack. "That's what mates do for each other."

"Well, that's not it. Well it is it, but there's more. I… you know… You know I'm gay?"

Jarrah looked both horrified and relieved that he had finally said it. The words had been spoken and there was no taking them back now. Not that he wanted to. He waited for Jack to say something, but he didn't. "I just needed to tell you. I mean after last night. We had a near death experience is the way they'd describe it. No, don't ask me who "they" is. But I didn't want to die with you not knowing who I really was. Why I hang around with you so much. I'm in love with you. I always was, I think, from the first time in kinder (kindergarten at age 4). But in the last year or so, it's become… more than that… more…"

"You don't need to explain unless you want to. I don't mind. I figured out the fact you were gay a few years back. Remember when we first learned to jerk off. We did it together. I used to close my eyes and think about touching Chloe Matheson's tities or Emily Grayson's fanny. But every time I opened my eyes, you were staring at me. Always me. At first I thought it was weird, but I thought about it some more and decided I didn't mind so much. In fact it was sort of flattering. I never said anything to you because I didn't want to… I do'n know, affect our friendship. I knew you'd get around to telling me eventually. And don't worry, I'll keep your secret as long as you want it kept, but I figure it will change our friendship."

Jarrah looked devastated.

Jack grinned. "Sure, I always wanted to know what it was like to have my dick sucked. I figure Chloe Matheson is not gonna be good for that for another year or so yet. And as we are being honest, I'd give as good as I get. Fair's fair after all… And there's other stuff we could do I guess. I wouldn't mind for now…"

Jack was pleased to see the smile return to Jarrah's face.

"Seriously though, I'm pretty sure I'm not gay. So please don't fall in love with me. I can't make any long term commitment. We can have some fun for a while, but it won't last. I like you as a mate and you're fun to be around, but we won't be boyfriends. Sorry to sound hard, but you were honest with me and I'm doing the same for you. Sorry!"

No one said anything for several minutes.

"Okay," Jarrah responded eventually. "I had a dream, a fantasy really, but deep down I knew it wasn't your thing. I've seen you around the girls at school and I think I knew that was your reality. Thanks for being honest."

Again, there was silence for several minutes before Jarrah spoke again. "But I still want to suck your dick sometime."

Both boys laughed. A minute later, Jarrah looked over at his mate.

"I really appreciate you being so understanding. I always knew I could trust you. That makes my next job easier."

"What's that?" asked Jack a little puzzled.

"Telling my mom and dad. I know they'll be basically cool, especially Mom. My father will be okay too, in the end. But I know he's gonna spent the next six months on his knees praying for me. I hate the thought of that. He's modern enough not to be anti-gay, but he still has some strange Old Testament beliefs deep down. He'll be perfectly cool and won't try and change me, but I just know he's gonna waste hours in his church praying for divine guidance on what to do. And after that… well there's the kids at school and on the footy team, and well…you get it?"

Jack remained silent. He had never considered this aspect of being gay. You had to tell other people about your sexuality. In his world, people assumed you had one sexual orientation, and for him that worked perfectly fine. Everybody went around assuming everyone else was straight. But being gay meant you had to go around telling a bunch of people your inner most secrets. The only thing he could compare it to would be being forced to give the names and details of the girls in his sexual fantasies when he jerked off. Talk about totally mortifying. He'd never even thought of telling Jarrah, his best mate, that sort of stuff. And gays had to do that with every new person they met. Why hadn't he ever considered that before? Jack guessed you had to be real brave, even today, to admit you were gay. True, it was getting easier. He remembered that the 2017 plebiscite on gay marriage was passed overwhelmingly by 62% vs. 38% with an 80% turnout of Australian voters. That had surprised him at the time. There was even a guy running for President of the USA who was openly gay.

"You'd better tell me in advance before you tell the guys on the footy team."

"Why? Jarrah asked.

"So I make sure I'm there to back you up. Most of the guys will be okay, but there's always a few assholes about."

"Thanks," whispered Jarrah. "You're a true friend."

"Well, I'll always try my best. But for now this 'true friend' is totally fucked and needs to get some more sleep. It's been one hell of a day. See you in the morning."

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