For the second morning in a row I woke up in the arms of Dallas Pearce. A guy could certainly get used to this, I thought.
I awoke to see the valley filled with a dense fog, the mist floating above the waterhole in front of us, the sky a dark grey, fading to a more pallid shade the higher you went, promising sunshine later in the day. I lay there for a long while just watching the morning and listening to the sounds of the morning; the sound of the water running, which already seemed much quieter than the day before, the sound of magpies welcoming the new morn, the sound of Dallas breathing in my ear, steady and rhythmical.
Could this really be happening? Had I died and gone to heaven? Had we both died in the raging waters and now we would get to spend eternity together?
If that last thought were true, then yes, I think I could have lived with that. Well … okay, that wasn’t quite the right phrase, but I think you would have picked up the meaning.
Just as before we were lying on our sides, with Dallas’ arm over my body and hugging me close to him. He felt warm, and hard and fit. He felt better than anyone else ever had and anyone else ever would again.
Taking Dallas’ hand in mine I hugged it close to my chest, dreaming my dreams and hoping never to wake up. I lay there for quite some time, just enjoying the moment and letting my brain race off to places I knew I shouldn’t let it race off to. Something told me that I shouldn’t be getting too far ahead of myself. It was the voice of reason, but most days it was just one of those niggling little voices that seemed to pop up whenever I didn’t want it to. As usual I knew I would let the other little voice, the voice of opportunity (that was telling me I should just grab the ball and run with it) push it into the background.
Time and time again I found myself listening to the wrong voice, but I felt sure that this time I was backing the right team.
Just as before I glanced back at Dallas to see if he was awake. His eyes were closed, but what I saw wasn’t a sight that reassured me, as his face wore a pained expression and what is more, it had a red glow about it that somehow just didn’t look healthy.
Quickly I sat up and spun around to face him. I placed my palm on his forehead and tried to feel his temperature. He was definitely hot.
‘Dallas!’ I said to him, as I placed a hand on his shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. ‘Wake up, mate.’
He gave a muffled moan but nothing else happened.
‘Dallas!’ I said quite loudly and shaking him more firmly this time. ‘Come on. You need to wake up!’
I looked down at his foot and leant across and felt it. It was hot and the bruise around his ankle seemed much angrier, much darker. It was now almost black.
‘Fuck! That can’t be good!’ I quietly swore.
I tried shaking Dallas, but the only response I received was more of the same; just a loud moan. It was like a beast not wanting to be roused from his sleep.
I got to my feet and went out into the morning, stomping angrily around, not knowing quite what to do.
With his being so hot I figured I should try and do something about that, so I pulled off my tee shirt and walked over to the waterhole and bent down, thoroughly soaking it before then returning to Dallas and wiping his forehead and face with the cool water. I repeated this a couple of times, before then leaving the damp cloth draped across his forehead. It may not have been much, and I don’t know if it made any difference, but at least I felt like I was trying to do something. It was all I could think of to do just now.
I wondered if I shouldn’t start walking back upstream, hoping that I might come into contact with a search party or something, but then the thought of leaving Dallas alone came into my head. I couldn’t leave him. Not now.
In the end I sat down on the log near the water’s edge and tried thinking things through.
I looked at the fire that we had had burning since the night before last. I was still hopeful that someone might have spotted the smoke from that, but realistically it wasn’t really much of a fire. The smoke it gave off was only a thin line and as I let my gaze follow it upwards through the rapidly thinning mists, I could see it against the blue sky above being picked up by the breeze and rapidly dissipating.
‘Call that a fire!’ I said aloud. ‘We need a real fire.’
I quickly scanned the area around me. Wood was growing thin on the ground and before long we wouldn’t have any left at all. I figured that I had one chance to get someone’s attention, but how was I going to be able to do that?
Then it struck me. I was sitting on it. The log.
I jumped to my feet and took a good look at it. If I could light some fires underneath it so that the entire length of it could catch alight it might just be enough.
I looked around me for some dry grass and thin sticks so that I might be able to get something started. There wasn’t much around, but I managed to gather enough to build a small mound of litter beneath the log. I also found a rock and managed to break away some half rotten timber on the log, exposing more wood and giving me some more material to build the fire with.
When I was satisfied there was enough material there I pulled the cigarette lighter from my pocket and flicked it, starting a small flame on the end of it, which I held under the grass until it caught.
The dry matter started spitting and crackling and slowly came to life, with flames soon lapping at the bottom of the log. Red embers started appearing as the flames slowly grew higher and it appeared that my plan was starting to work. If this whole log caught alight then maybe there was a chance the fire would be big enough for the smoke to be spotted from a distance.
But would it be enough?
After checking on Dallas once more and finding him unchanged, I dipped my tee shirt back in the water and bathed his still warm face once again.
While I was by the water again I noticed for the first time that the water level seemed to have dropped considerably overnight. I looked to see if there was any way across and it looked as if there could be, right where the water drained from the waterhole to continue on its way. There were two distinct streams, separated by a small island of rock, which I believed could be jumped one at a time. Beyond that was another steep hill, although this one appeared to have a greater covering of grass than the one I had climbed yesterday on our side of the creek. It was nearing the end of summer and the grass was drying off. It was ready to burn, I quickly realised, and there was a lot of it. All I needed to do was set it alight.
When I finished bathing Dallas’ face I left the damp cloth draped across his forehead once more and went to further contemplate my next plan. Going down to the creek I took a closer look at where I thought I could cross. It was a gap of only around six feet, which I figured was easy enough for even me to clear. What I wasn’t sure of was how wide the gap was over the next stream of water, as I couldn’t quite see that due to the island in between them.
I would simply have to take a chance, I figured.
I also went to the point where the water dropped away and saw that it was a considerable drop. It may not have been as far down as the falls we had come over just thirty-six hours ago, but the landing was harder … nothing but rock.
Returning to the narrowest point of the first stream I readied myself, taking a few steps back so that I had a bit of a run up. Taking in a deep breath I ran forward and jumped the first part easily, landing on a large slab of dark and slippery rock, which for a moment had me worried I would slip off it and into the water again.
So far so good!
I quickly made my way around to the other side of the rocky little island and it was here that my heart sank. This stream of water was wider than the first, which was bad enough in itself, but the landing was also more difficult, as the water appeared to run straight through a channel carved through rock and on the far side of the water there was a straight up and down face of black rock that actually ended about three feet above the water. Not only was it wider, but I would also have to jump UP.
Quickly I scanned up and down both sides to see if there was an easier way, but it didn’t look good. I couldn’t even see how deep the water was, reasoning that I may have even been able to wade across it, but no; this was the only way I could see across, and it wasn’t going to be easy.
It was now or never, so stepping back as far as I could I readied myself, then after a short run up over uneven and slippery rocks, I launched myself into a long jump.
I held my breath as I sailed over the water, with arms and legs flailing through the air. The rock ledge of the far bank was looming closer and closer, and for a few fleeting moments I thought I was going to make it, but it wasn’t to be. I didn’t quite have the height I needed and my legs crashed first into the rock, flinging me forward, but unable to grasp anything to keep me there I found myself slipping backwards. I soon found myself hanging from the very edge, with my legs and body in the water, which was tugging at me with all its force. Panic rose through me. There was no way I was going to be able to hold on and the more I struggled to do just that the further I slipped into the water.
Quickly I glanced downstream, as the murky water washed over me, to see what fate would await me if I let go. All I could see was the edge of the world, where the water dropped away again. Beyond that I could see only the distant hills. How far down the water would drop I had no idea. I knew that I had checked that earlier, but remembering anything like that right now was impossible.
The water was tearing at me, just as it had two days ago. The only relief this time was that it didn’t quite have the same force as two days ago.
Once more I tried to pull myself upwards, with the feeble muscles of my arms straining as hard as they could, while my feet were searching for some kind of foothold, but it was no use.
I was doomed. I was also amazed at how quickly such a foolproof plan, at least in my own adolescent mind, had suddenly turned to shit!
With one last effort I tried again to pull myself upwards. I clawed at the rocks above the ledge, trying to find something, anything to grab hold of. Fleetingly I thought I had found something, a groove or crack in the smooth black rock, but as I tried pulling against it my hand slipped. The rock was damp from the spray of the water and I couldn’t hold on. My arm swung backwards through the air when I slipped, throwing my body off balance. That was all I needed to finish the job, I slipped and fell back into the water and was carried away to what I felt would now be certain death.
‘I’m sorry, Dallas. Please forgive me. I tried,’ was all I thought as the water carried me away and smashed me into more rocks, which were on the opposite side of the stream. I bounced off those then came back to the side I had been hanging on … the side I needed to be on. There were more rocks in front of me, but then, somehow miraculously, I could feel my feet and legs touching rocks also. The water wasn’t as deep here.
Reaching out for the rocks on the bank I managed to grab hold of a jagged edge, while at the same time I brought my feet around to the point where I had them under me and in front of me. I found something below the water that I could push against and somehow managed to haul myself upwards and soon found myself lying half out of the water. I wasn’t twenty metres from where I had been hanging precariously just seconds before.
With another effort I soon managed to drag the rest of my body out of the water and roll onto my back, dripping wet and gasping for air, but soon being warmed by the morning sun.
I don’t know how long I lay there for, but when I eventually sat up I was mostly dry and my breathing had returned to normal. My hands, legs and body had more cuts on them, but once again I had dodged a bullet. I was alive, and that was the main thing.
I tried to focus on what it was that I had come over to this side of the creek for and, looking around me I soon saw the grass covered hill. Reaching into my pocket I soon found Dallas’ cigarette lighter and pulled it out, then getting up I started for the nearest spot where some dry grass was and started pulling some up by the roots.
My plan was to try and build up a reasonable pile of grass so that it would be likely to catch well alight, then hopefully the fire would spread up the hillside.
When I was satisfied with what I had gathered I crouched down on the bottom side of the pile and thrust my hand beneath it and flicking the lighter. It took a few moments to light, but pretty soon the pile of grass I had gathered was well ablaze, and with the wind at my back, coming from just the direction I needed, it wasn’t long that the fire started spreading. At first it sent out little tendrils of flame, burning whatever was in their path. Some burnt out quite quickly, but then some found more fuel and started another small blaze. The thick, dry clumps of grass seemed to catch fire one by one, spreading slowly. I watched as one would ignite and flare up, then cinders would fall on the next clump, and then the next, with each lot of grass miraculously soon catching totally alight.
With the wind behind it the fire started spreading rapidly, and within just a few minutes there was a large area ablaze. It was also growing, expanding, and soon rushing up the hillside in a wall of flame.
Smoke was billowing high up into the air and I gave a whoop and a holler as I watched it, thinking that surely someone would see this, wouldn’t they? They just had to!
* * * * *
With hope renewed I returned to the edge of the creek to look at how I was going to get back across it.
As this side was higher, I reasoned, I should be able to jump back across at my original spot. It was only because this edge was higher that I didn’t have the clearance when trying to come this way, so if I was now higher on this side than the other side, then all I needed to be able to do was clear the water. That seemed reasonable, now that I had recovered some of my strength after my earlier ordeal.
Looking back up at the hillside I could see it still burning well, with a plume of smoke now reaching way up into the sky, so it was with a smile on my face that I backed up several paces than ran at the creek once more, jumping high and wide and landing well past where I thought I would.
The next jump was even easier, and pretty soon I was walking back toward Dallas and feeling quite pleased with myself, although those feelings were soon cast aside when I saw him still lying there just as I had left him.
Feeling his forehead once more I could tell he was still feverish, but I didn’t know what else I could do.
I got to my feet and went to the creek once more and soaked the tee shirt, then came back and continued to wipe his face and forehead. Every now and then I glanced up at the blazing hill across the creek, just hoping that somebody would see the smoke and come to our rescue. It was still burning, but I didn’t know how much longer for, as the flames were nearing the top of the hill and the grass may soon run out. I didn’t know what may be on the other side of the hill, but if it was only grass like on this side, I figured it may not burn as easily without the wind to push it along.
Whatever happened, at least I had tried.
When I folded my tee shirt and draped it across Dallas’ forehead this time I looked down at his face and saw his eyes slightly open.
‘Hey, mate,’ I said to him. ‘Enjoy your rest?’
He blinked a couple of times. At first it was the only reaction I received … but it was a reaction. He was awake and that was all that mattered for now.
‘I’ve sent up a smoke signal,’ I said to him, as I smoothed back his hair, letting my fingers gently run through the dark mass, just smoothing it down.
‘N-nice,’ he whispered hoarsely. ‘Thanks.’
‘Anytime,’ I replied. Without any warning I felt tears start to well up in my eyes, which I wiped away with the back of my hand. I simply couldn’t help it. The last few days had left me worn out, both emotionally and physically. I was nearing the end of my tether and if someone didn’t come for us soon I was beginning to be convinced I would go mad.
‘D-don’t …’ he said.
‘Sorry. I’m such a wuss,’ was all I could say, as I wiped more tears away.
For the first time I saw the corners of his mouth curl up in the beginnings of a smile, but it was short lived as pain soon took him over once more.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked him anxiously. He gave a nod, barely discernable, but it was a nod nonetheless.
‘They will come,’ I said. ‘They have to. Half the National Park is alight now! They’ll want to throw the bugger in jail who lit it.’
I felt another tear form in one of my eyes as he gave a small cough and tried to smile once again. As it started to roll down my cheek he did something that surprised me, he raised a hand and brushed the tear away, gently, just as a lover might do.
I cupped his palm to my face and then kissed his hand. It was something that I never thought I would ever get the chance to do, but in that instant I soon realised it wasn’t the right thing to do, as his eyes clouded with confusion and he pulled his hand away.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I said to him. ‘It shouldn’t be like this. We should be out of here by now. I’ve tried. I really have.’
‘Hush …’ he whispered. ‘We are going to get out of here. It’s going to be okay. You’ll see.’
Turning away from him, so that he wouldn’t see the fresh tears I could feel were about to come, I looked back up toward the grass fire I had started. It was still burning, but with far less ferocity than before and it would only be a matter of time before it burnt itself out, I thought.
And what then, I wondered? With virtually no food or drinkable water, and now we were almost out of firewood altogether, if we were to spend another night in this place we might not even have anything to keep us warm. This was about as bad as it could possibly get, I decided.
Feeling about as low as I ever had, I scrambled to my feet and wandered off to the water’s edge. The constant sound of the rushing water was starting to drive me mad, I thought. With the water level having dropped this morning I had thought that the day had started out quieter than it had been in recent days, but now … now it was sounding like it was starting to increase again.
What the fuck? Had there been more rain upstream again? Was there a fresh wall of water heading our way?
Nervously I looked toward the waterfalls in front of me for any sign of an increase in the water level, but could see none. But still the sound of the water seemed to grow louder and louder. I was convinced that we were about to be flooded again and started running back toward where Dallas lay.
‘Get up!’ I yelled. ‘Get up!’
He sat up and looked at me, his face contorted in alarm.
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
‘Water!’ I yelled. ‘Sounds like more coming! Lots more!’
I helped him out of the little shelter and get to his feet. The noise was suddenly deafening. Our ear drums were on the verge of bursting. The sound of roaring water was right upon us. But then I looked at Dallas and the strangest thing happened. His eyes lit up and he smiled a smile that I hadn’t seen him smile in years.
I looked in the direction he was looking in, and as we stood there together in a wind that was now relentless, with me trying to support his weight and with him trying not to collapse all over me, we saw the most beautiful sight in the world.
It was a shiny helicopter painted yellow and white and red that had appeared and was now hovering directly over the waterfall in front of us.
‘What did I tell you?’ Dallas yelled at me, although I could barely hear him.
I wanted to jump up and down. I wanted to kiss him. I wanted to dance with him. In the end though, we just held each other, each hugging the other to him as if our lives depended on it, as the helicopter inched forward until it was directly over our little clearing beside the waterhole.
We looked up and watched as a door on the side opened and two ropes came snaking their way down to the ground, followed by two men dressed in rescue gear of bright orange overalls, helmets with dark visors, and carrying backpacks.
They shimmied down the ropes and landed right near us, then just as quickly the ropes were reeled in and the helicopter backed off away from us to hover once more above the waterfalls a short distance away.
The two men quickly shucked their backpacks and removed their helmets, then came to us.
‘We’ve been looking for you guys,’ the first one said to us. ‘Are you okay?’
I can just imagine how we would have looked to them, like a couple of beaten up street kids who had just gone through a gang brawl. I was standing there in just my jeans, with my usually pale skin now covered with sunburn, cuts, scratches and bruises. Dallas was standing there on one leg in his jeans and his dirty, unzipped jacket, one bare foot swollen and almost black, while the other was just covered in dirt. Our faces were also covered in dirt and our hair was wild.
I managed to shake my head and say, ‘Him first,’ as I stepped back and almost pushed Dallas toward our rescuers.
As they took hold of Dallas and laid him on the ground I could only stand there and watch, with the emotions that had been welling up inside me these past few days suddenly becoming all too much. I burst out in tears, crying uncontrollably as they started working on Dallas’ foot and checking out his blackened ribs.
One of the rescuer guys looked up and saw me and came to me.
‘It’s going to be okay,’ he said, with one hand on each of my shoulders. ‘You’re both safe now.’
‘I know,’ I managed to say between sobs.
‘Was it you who lit that fire? That was risky, but a brilliant idea. That’s how we found you, you know!’
* * * * *
After being given the check-up to see what our condition and injuries might be, we were both given some water and something to eat, which we devoured as if we hadn’t eaten for a month, while our rescuers looked on, then a short time later we were winched up into the helicopter, one by one, with them using a stretcher shaped frame for Dallas, while I was winched up in a harness, coupled with one of our rescuers.
I was amazed at how the massive machine had managed to stay still in the air for so long while first we were treated and then we were finally winched to safety.
When we were all safely settled in and secured, I looked back down at what had been our makeshift home for a couple of days, then as the helicopter banked away I watched it slowly recede, eventually becoming just a tiny speck in the distance.
Dallas was still lying in the stretcher frame that he had been winched up into the helicopter on. His head was resting on a thin pillow and he was covered with a silver foil blanket, similar to the one that was now draped around my shoulders.
I saw him look up at me and smile, then a hand reached out from under the blanket. I reached forward and took it in mine.
‘Thank you,’ I saw, rather than heard, him say, as the deafening sound of the machine’s motors drowned out all other sounds. I gave him a nod and a smile, and gently squeezed his hand.
Looking ahead I saw we were skimming over treetops and travelling fast, and in no time at all I could see that we were coming up on the old town of Salvation; then beyond that I could see the railway carriages and camp where we had stayed just three nights ago. To me the place resembled the car park at the local Kmart, with what looked like dozens of vehicles, of all shapes and sizes; including police, ambulance and search and rescue vehicles, all parked around it.
It was certainly a welcome sight to see.
As we drew closer I could see a crowd starting to gather out the front of the resort, with everyone coming to greet us. I had no idea who would be there, but I guessed that our parents would be there and possibly some of our classmates and teachers, if they had stayed around.
Quickly I scanned the vehicles to see if the two buses were still there. I found one of them, so I figured the other one must have gone home.
The closer we got the more the helicopter started to slow, until eventually it was hovering in front of the parked cars, around which the crowd had gathered. I looked at the faces in the crowd and soon found my parents, clutching each other, as well as Dallas’. Pete and Merry were there, as were ‘Hollywood’ Harris, Mr. Spillsbury, and a smattering of kids from our class. There were also a heap of people dressed in the brilliant orange overalls belonging to emergency services. It sure was some welcome home gathering.
The helicopter started to drop and before long we were safely on the ground again, with the engines soon being shut down and their deafening noise abating.
When the rotors finally stopped spinning a door was pulled open, and as I stepped out of the machine with our rescuers, eager faces soon gathered around us.
My parents rushed forward and hugged me, just as Dallas’ parents rushed forward to greet him. Between hugs and kisses from my frantic family I watched as Dallas was partly pulled from the helicopter so that he too could see his folks.
I wanted to go to him and wrap my arms around him and push everyone else away, but I knew that wasn’t possible.
‘Oh my god, JJ. Are you okay?’ I heard my mother saying to me and turned back to face her. ‘We were so worried … we thought we wouldn’t ever see you again!’
I looked at her and then at my father, whose hand was resting on my shoulder.
‘I’m fine,’ I said eventually. ‘I’m just tired.’
‘What happened out there?’ my father asked me. ‘Were you hurt?’
‘I’m fine, Dad. Truly I am,’ I replied.
Over his shoulder I saw Pete and Merry clutching desperately at each other, while standing with ‘Hollywood’. All their faces were a pale shade of grey, apart from the black rings under their eyes that is.
‘Give me a sec,’ I said to my folks as I pulled away from them and went to my friends.
Not a word was said between us; it didn’t need to be, but the three of us embraced. When we eventually separated it was Merry who broke the ice, saying, ‘JJ, I mean this in the nicest possible way, but you stink!’ We all laughed.
‘Thanks for that,’ I said to her, then I saw ‘Hollywood’ looking at us. I went to him and stood in front of him, not sure what to say.
He held out his hand toward me and I reached forward with mine, and when we touched he pulled me to him and hugged me. I’m pretty sure that was against the rules, but no one was going to mind on this occasion, and if they did I would raise all hell about it.
‘Good to see you made it back,’ he eventually said to me after he stepped back. ‘You had us worried.’
‘I was pretty worried myself there for a while.’
It was then that I saw the rescue guys starting to talk with mine and Dallas’ parents, so I tried to listen in.
‘We want to take them both up to the hospital first so that they can be checked out,’ I heard one of them say. ‘A night in hospital won’t hurt them. They’re both suffering from some exposure and it looks like Dallas has been banged up a bit and will need some treatment, but I’m sure that they’ll both be fine.’
‘How will you take them there?’ I heard Dallas’ father ask.
‘We’ll fly them up. A couple of you can travel with them if you like,’ he answered.
My parents looked at each other, as did Dallas’. In the end it was our two mothers who it was decided would fly with us to the hospital, while our fathers would drive home in whichever vehicles they had come down in. Shortly afterward we were bundled back into the helicopter and the doors were closed.
I reached down and put a hand on Dallas’ shoulder. ‘Not long now, mate,’ I said to him.
He gave me a nod but didn’t say anything. It was then that I looked into his eyes and saw that same clouded, fearful expression that I had seen earlier. After thinking that we had finally both managed to work each other out, I was suddenly just as confused as ever and I spent the rest of the flight deep in thought.
* * * * *
By the time we reached our home town the sun was well and truly on the way to setting and I could see the lights of the town coming on as we flew in.
The hospital itself didn’t have anywhere for a helicopter to land, but a number of times I had seen one land on the sports field and park just over the road from the hospital, and that was where we ended up landing today, with a police car and two ambulances parked there waiting for us, their red and blue lights flashing brightly.
We were quickly transferred to the ambulances, before being driven across the road to the Emergency Department of the hospital and admitted, placed on trolleys and being ushered inside to the cubicles, before having curtains drawn behind us.
The last I saw of Dallas was him being wheeled away from me on a trolley and disappearing through swinging semi-clear rubber doors, with his mother scurrying along beside the trolley, still holding his hand.
I was pushed through those same door shortly afterwards, but was taken to a different cubicle to be looked at. The nurse on duty came to us and said that a doctor would be with us shortly.
‘He’ll be all right, darling,’ my mother said to me as I watched him go. She was holding one of my hands and gently squeezed it as she said it. I looked up at her sharply, wondering if there was some hidden meaning or understanding in the way she said that.
She looked at me and must have seen the questions that were written in my frown.
‘We can’t help who we love, you know. Even if they don’t love us back,’ she said simply. Once more I was dumbfounded.
‘You … you know?’ I finally managed to ask her.
Silently she nodded in reply, then she ran her hand over my hair, just like she did when I was much, much younger.
‘H-how long for?’
‘A while,’ she replied. ‘Well, ever since not long after you and he had your big bust up that time.’
‘But … how could you know?’
She smiled at me. ‘His mother and I still talk, you know. She overheard him say something about someone being gay. It didn’t take Einstein to work it all out.’
‘And … what about Dad? Does he know too?’
I let my head drop back onto the pillow then turned my head away from her and closed my eyes. Suddenly this was all just a bit too much for me to process at the moment.