‘Mum, I’m bored. Can we go to the shops?’
Corey’s mum held up her hand to shoosh him and told the Zoomed faces on her computer screen she’d be right back. She switched off the screen and said, ‘sorry love, I’m in the middle of an important meeting. I just don’t have the time to take you right now. Why don’t you watch David Attenborough or play that computer game for a bit longer – what’s it called again?’
‘It’s Fortnite and I’m over it. I’m sick of being stuck inside in the holidays now that the lockdown is over.’
‘Look Corey, I can’t take you to the shops until seven o’clock at the earliest. Take Camelia with you and go for a walk.’
Corey shrugged. ‘I suppose. Why can’t I go by myself?’
‘You are eleven years old! I don’t want you walking around the neighbourhood on your own. That’s final.’
‘Ok,’ Corey said. He went to his sister’s room.
‘Come on Camelia. I’m going for a walk but Mum won’t let me go by myself.’
‘Shh,’ said Camelia, screwing up her face at him. She told her friend on the phone to wait a minute then shouted, ‘Mum, I don’t want to go.’
Their mother’s voice called out from the study. ‘Camelia, please take Corey outside for a walk down the end of the street. Please, just for half an hour. I need to concentrate.’
‘Alright, alright,’ Camelia huffed. ‘Hurry up Corey, your half an hour started five minutes ago.’
Corey grabbed a piece of bread from the kitchen in case he got hungry and stuffed it in his pocket.
Just as they went through the front gate Camelia’s phone rang.
‘Hi! Oh! Anthony? Um… hold on a sec.’
Camelia’s face had turned the same shade of pink as her headband.
‘Corey, just go will you. This is a very important call.’
‘But didn’t you tell Marissa that Anthony was a grub?’
‘That’s none of your business. Now run along.’
‘But mum said you have to come with me.’
A boy’s voice said something on the phone.
‘No don’t hang up, I’m not busy at all, hang on.’
‘Corey, mum’s not going to know. She’s stuck inside with her stupid Zoom meetings. I’ll just sit here and wait for you. Just walk down to the end of the street and come back in half an hour. As long as you don’t do anything stupid mum will never know.’
‘Stupid? No, not you, Anthony. Nothing’s wrong at all. I’ve got all the time in the world.’
Camelia sat down on the low garden wall and stared at an imaginary mountain while talking to Anthony on the phone. She pulled a face at Corey and waved him away.
The wind was cool and although the sun was already casting long shadows, there were only a few white clouds in the sky. It was a good time for a walk Corey supposed. Just down the end of the street and back. He headed off.
The angry Alsatian at number eighteen barked at him, making him jump about ten feet in the air. A gruff voice from inside the open garage called out, ‘Are those bloody kids teasing you again, Shark?’
Corey felt like saying something but as usual just shut his mouth. No point saying anything to angry people. Or dogs. He got to the end of the street and turned around. From here he could see Shark standing in the middle of the road off its leash.
Hmm. Maybe I won’t go back just yet.
At the end of the street was a little laneway between the houses that led to the bush reserve. He’d only been gone about five minutes and it might be a while before the dog was gone.
He stared at the laneway. He heard a Bellbird.
Why not, it’s a nice day.
* * * * *
Corey came out to the path behind the houses. It’s not that he hadn’t been here before. This was the usual shortcut he and Camelia took when walking to and from school. On school days there were always plenty of kids here, but after such a long time in lockdown it felt different. The trees towered overhead and their branches blowing in the breeze threw shadows that made strange shapes across the path.
He came to where the path branched off to the right across the wooden bridge over the creek. Camelia had told him to never go that way. She said there were monsters down there. All the kids said that. Beyond the bridge the path curved and ran behind thick bushes. The sun had dipped below the trees and he shivered and wished he’d worn something more substantial than a sloppy joe and shorts.
Corey heard something and froze. Footsteps on the path ahead, coming towards him. He looked for somewhere to hide but the bush was too thick and forbidding. Maybe it would be better to just keep walking but he couldn’t get his legs to move. The footsteps grew louder. Then he heard voices. Around the corner came two boys. He knew them only too well.
Oh, no! Why didn’t I go back?
The short one on the left with the big chest and spiky hair was called Tank. His name was really Thomas but because he could push anyone around or pick up people and throw them into the bushes they called him Tank.
The other tall boy with the braces was Adam. He didn’t say much other than laugh at Tank’s jokes. Corey’s friends said that Adam would hold people while Tank punched them.
’Look at this. If it isn’t my old mate, Blubbs!’ said Tank.
Corey hated that nickname.
’Hi Tank,’ said Corey, weakly.
‘Hi Tank,’ Tank replied in a mocking voice.
Tank grabbed Corey by the collar and pulled his face towards his own. Corey could smell burger rings on his breath.
‘Are you going to blubber again like you did in class that time? Remember that, Adam? Miss Wyatt asked Blubbs a question and what did Blubbs do? Just stood there like a dummy and started blubbering. That was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. Don’t you reckon, Adam?’
‘Yeah,’ Adam sniggered.
Tank pulled Corey close and raised his fist. Corey could count every freckle on each fat knuckle.
‘Your big hooter makes a pretty easy target. It might make you look better with it smashed across your face. So, what will it be Blubbs, keep walking this way and deal with this,’ said Tank, admiring his fist, ‘or take the coward’s way over the bridge?’
Corey was shaking so much he could barely get a word out. He wondered what he would say to his mum when he got back with a black eye and a few missing teeth. He wondered how much pain he would feel when that fist smashed into his face.
‘I’ll go the coward’s way, please,’ said Corey pointing to the bridge.
‘Please. Ha, ha. What a big coward you are. I ought to smash you anyway.’ said Tank.
‘Better let him go. You might catch corona.’ said Adam.
Tank lowered his fist and threw Corey to the ground. ‘Go on, get out of here. Watch out for the monsters,’ he heard Tank shout followed by the two boys’ laughter.
* * * * *
Corey ran across the bridge and kept on running, trying to put as much distance between himself and the two boys as he could. Eventually he stopped and bent double trying to get his breath. Once he’d sucked in some air he realised how quiet it was – just a bird or two breaking the silence. The bushes were thick and their shadows formed almost human shapes. Corey gulped.
He heard the sound of running water and followed it until he came to the creek. Where the creek dropped over a rock ledge it made a gentle splashing noise. Large moss-covered rocks broke the surface and Corey felt he could almost cross to the other side over them. He stepped over a few of the rocks then slipped, hitting his knee and having to put his other leg in the water to steady himself.
Oh great! Mum will really be mad now.
It was too slippery for him to climb back up the rock and he waded through waist deep water toward the bank. At least the water didn’t look polluted. But something moving in the water made him start. It was long and sleek and writhed about.
A snake? The monster?
Corey wanted to call for his mum, for anybody. He scrambled onto the bank, losing a shoe in the process, and he lay there shaking, tears streaming down his face.
He knelt down and looked into the water and saw his shoe on the creek bed. A few twigs he’d dislodged while getting on the bank swirled in an eddy before slipping back into the stream and heading over the little waterfall.
Should I jump in and get it?
Then he heard it.
A scratching, snuffling noise, slightly behind him and to his left.
A chill ran through him. He didn’t stop to wonder. He bolted up the path, his foot coming out of the other shoe. If he kept going in this direction he would eventually come to the road and he could find his way back home. The thuds of his wet feet on the path kept in time with the rhythm of his thumping heart.
Rounding a bend he saw a wooden railing and a sandstone retaining wall. He leant against the railing and wondered what he was going to tell his mum. His mother was always wanting him to take a break from the computer or watching science shows but he was sure this wasn’t what she had in mind. He had a ripped shirt and grazed elbow thanks to Tank, his knee stung where he had slipped on the rock, and he had left behind a good pair of trainers. No, his mum would be furious.
He heard what sounded like kids playing and realised he had come out at the back of the big park behind the shopping centre. Corey kept walking up an incline and a ball bounced across the path ahead of him and rolled into the bushes.
A girl with black hair in pigtails leaned over the retaining wall.
‘Hi there. Can you get the ball for us?’ she said, a big smile on her face.
‘Sure,’ said Corey and he went to the bushes where the ball had rolled. But he couldn’t see it. The undergrowth was tangled and Corey wondered if it concealed a snake or even a monster. He didn’t like the idea of putting his hands in there.
‘Umm…,‘ he said, preparing his excuse.
‘That’s so nice of you,’ said the girl, still smiling.
Why does she have to smile like that? Here goes!
Corey thrusted his hands into the bushes and felt around and grabbed the ball. As he pulled it out he felt a sharp pain on the arm.
‘Ouch!’ he yelped.
‘Just an ant bite.’
‘I’m so sorry. Thanks for getting the ball. Do you want to play with us?’
‘What?’ Corey never played games with other kids unless he was forced to.
‘We have uneven teams. You can play on our team. My name’s Amber by the way. What’s yours?’
‘Blubb… I mean, Corey.’
Amber crinkled up her nose.
‘Do you always wear socks without shoes? And why are you wet? Doesn’t matter. Come with me, Corey.’
Corey had never been good at team sports. He hadn’t been good at individual sports either. But he could hardly refuse Amber, especially as she smiled so much.
A boy called Matt smiled also and welcomed him. He was the captain of one team; Amber of the other. He was introduced to Ivan, Daisy, Matt and other kids.
‘Hi Corey,’ they all said.
‘It’s getting late. First team to score three goals wins,’ Matt said.
Corey didn’t think he played particularly well but the other kids didn’t come too close – ‘watch out for Corey’s feet,’ Amber would shout. Every time he got the ball someone would say, ‘pass it Corey,’ or ‘kick it Corey.’ He was so unused to people other than his family or teachers calling him by his name he could barely stop grinning.
When the game was over Amber and Matt formed the players into a circle. ‘Elbows,’ they said, and all the kids reached in and bumped elbows.
‘Bye Corey,’ Amber said. ‘We’ll be back on Thursday. Please come and play again.’
‘I think I will. Bye Amber, thanks for the game.’ Corey waved to her and the other kids as they went to the car park for their lifts.
He been gone much longer than half an hour and the sky was getting dark. Going home by the road would take too long. He decided he would go back the way he came after all.
Pass it, Corey. Kick it, Corey. Bye Corey!
Corey repeated those words over and over as he went home. Although his legs were aching, his elbow hurting and the ant bite starting to swell, he almost skipped along the path.
* * * * *
When he walked back past the creek he wasn’t thinking about monsters; he was thinking about Amber’s pigtails and playing with the kids on Thursday. When he got home he was going to watch some YouTube videos on how to kick a ball the way you wanted it to go.
He stopped and listened to the birds. He tried to differentiate between the calls. One bird went ooh-wee! Another cawed three times, each caw longer than the last. A Bellbird pinged high above.
Corey put on the shoe he’d left on the bank. He took a step and it made a squelching noise that made him laugh. He used a branch to fish out the shoe that was in the creek. The water was a dark shade of green and as his eyes grew accustomed to the light he noticed movement in the water. It wasn’t a snake after all, it was an eel.
I wonder if they like bread?
Corey pulled out the piece of bread from his pocket and tore a chunk off. The bread was soggy in his palm and he rolled it in a little ball and tossed it in the water. An underwater mouth gobbled it up. He threw another ball of bread and more hungry mouths appeared. Corey could see there were a lot of eels in the creek. Thank you, Corey, he imagined the eels saying. Monsters!
Then he heard the noise again. A scratching, scurrying sound near the bank. This time he didn’t flinch. If this was the monster he wanted a closer look. He would tell Amber how he stared the monster down. He crept quietly over a rock near the bank and looked for the source of the noise. There!
I can’t believe it! If only mum and Camelia could see this.
He watched the animal dive under the water then crawl into a hollow under and old tree trunk. He sat there in awed silence, entranced by the comings and goings of the creature. If only I could show this to Amber. She would probably smile and say, ‘thanks, Corey.’
‘Look there’s Blubbs,’ said a voice from behind him. The afternoon’s shadows seemed to deepen.
* * * * *
‘Ssh,’ said Corey, putting his finger to his lips.
‘Did he just tell to us shut up?’ Tank said, presumably to Adam.
‘What are you looking at?’ said Adam.
Corey waved him to come. Adam came to the rock and peered over.
‘Oh, wow! How cool.’
‘Quiet,’ said Corey, and the two boys knelt down and watched.
‘I wish I had a camera,’ whispered Corey.
‘Tank’s got one. I’ll get him to bring it.’
Adam left and brought Tank back with him.
‘This better be good,’ said Tank, adding a swear word just because that’s something Tank liked to do.
Corey pointed to the creature. Tank’s eyes widened.
‘Geez, I’ve never seen one in the wild,’ he said, pulling out his camera and pressing record.
Adam elbowed Corey and said, ‘Look, there’s another one.’
‘Woah. I’m still recording,’ said Tank.
A voice called from far-off: ‘COR-EY! COR-EY!’
’That’s my mum,’ said Corey. ‘She’ll be mad. I’d better go.’
‘Hang on Corey,’ said Adam, ‘we’d better go as well.’
Corey almost fell over at the sound of Adam calling his name.
They walked side by side along the path, Corey telling Adam all he knew about the animals they had seen.
‘Their scientific name is Ornithorhynchus anatinus, and the males have this really cool poisonous claw on their back feet.’
Tank, following at a distance, said, ‘how do you know all this stuff, Blubbs?’
‘I watch a lot of nature shows.’
‘How come you always cry when the teacher gets you to answer a question.’
Corey could only shrug his shoulders and say, ‘I don’t know.’
Corey’s mum and Camelia were waiting at the lane.
‘Oh, thank Goodness you’re OK,’ his mum said, giving him a big hug. He was glad to see her but a bit embarrassed as well.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t come with you,’ Camelia said, looking a little sheepish. She gave him a hug too.
Another lady Corey didn’t know was with them. She was stout and had a severe expression on her face.
‘Look mum,’ said Tank, skipping past them and going up to the stern-faced lady. ‘We saw some platypuses. It was really cool. Have a look at this.’
Tank showed his mum the video, her features relaxing as she smiled broadly. ‘How wonderful. Don’t forget to send it to Rachael,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said Tank.
‘We’d better go now,‘ said Tank’s mum.
‘Elbows,’ said Adam, and the three boys touched elbows.
‘Sorry about before,’ whispered Adam. ‘And thanks for showing us the platypus, that was really cool. See you around, Corey.’
‘Yeah, same,’ said Tank. ‘See ya at school… Corey.’
There was his name again. He had heard it more times today than he had all year.
’See ya, Tank.’
Tank stood there and looked down at the ground for a moment then back to Corey and said, ‘I’ve got a name too, you know.’
Corey wondered what he meant at first but then it dawned on him. He went to reply but the words stuck in his throat. By the time he said, ‘see ya, Thomas,’ the tail lights of Tank’s mum’s car were heading down the street.