May 2005 – nine years old.
Tim sat slouched on the side of the road, nursing a bruised cheek.
Not only had he lost the model plane he’d spent all his pocket money on (not to mention crashing his bike), but Ant’s birthday party was that afternoon, and now Tim wouldn’t have a present.
He sat on the curb outside the convenience store, the wheels on his overturned bike still spinning. The older boy’s—who had cornered him on their fancy mountain bikes—had cut Tim off on his way to the party and they’d taken off with the model plane before Tim even had a chance to get back up.
Skin was missing from his knee, elbow and both palms and somehow he’d managed to smack himself in the face as he landed, resulting in the bruise that was now tingling the side of his face.
‘You right there kid?’
Tim looked up. The store owner—Shane—was standing over him, arms crossed as he peered down the street after the older boys.
Tim shrugged, pushed himself to his feet and brushed off his shorts. ‘I’m alright.’
‘You know who they are?’
‘Know their parents?’
‘You shouldn’t let them get away with that.’
‘Oh, I won’t. I’ll puncture their tires at school tomorrow.’
Shane raised his eyebrows, a look of surprise crossing his face. ‘How old are you?’
‘Hm. Want an ice-cream?’
‘Nah, I’m late for my friend’s birthday party.’
‘Oh. How old is your friend?’
‘He turned ten last month, but he was sick and wasn’t allowed to play. He’s not at school yet, so I got him a model plane to make. He likes building things.’
Shane nodded. ‘That’s pretty thoughtful.’
Tim nodded and kicked at the dirt. ‘Yeah. But those bullies took it. And I spent all my pocket money on it.’
‘Why don’t you tell your mum? I’m sure she’d understand and get another model.’
‘Nah, she don’t know I’m getting bullied,’ said Tim. ‘But that’s okay. She has to work lots cause it’s just me and her, so I don’t wanna worry her. Besides, I can be a bully too. If I hafta.’
Shane grinned, his face twisting into an expression Tim didn’t usually see on adults. ‘I like you, kid,’ he said, and gestured back to the store. ‘What kind of things does your friend like to make? I got all sorts of things out back, maybe you could give him something from the store?’
Tim perked up. ‘He likes broken things best. It’s kinda weird, but I guess he likes to fix stuff.’
‘Well, I think I can work with that. Hang on a sec, I’ll see if I have something that’ll fit on your bike.’
An hour later, Tim turned up late to Ant’s party. He was panting and red faced and sweatier than he’d ever been. Shane had offered him a ride, but even though he’d helped him, Tim informed the man that he didn’t drive in cars with strangers.
With a laugh and a hearty grin, Shane had nodded, and said, ‘That’s a good rule to follow kid. You keep that sense of distrust, alright? Don’t forget to get back those bullies.’
Ant’s mum opened the door when Tim knocked, her pleasant smile dropping away to the familiar look of distaste she had whenever Tim and his Ma came around. Tim ignored her. She was something Ma called a bible basher. Tim wasn’t sure what it meant, except that she was cranky a lot and he didn’t have to listen to her.
He leaned his bike up against the front of the house and carefully lifted the heavy cardboard box out of the milk crate Shane had tied to the back of his bike. Inside, there were a bunch of kids from school that Tim didn’t know very well. He knew everyone liked Ant, the kid was what Ma called a saint, he was nice to everyone. But Tim hadn’t realised he had so many friends. A twinge of something nasty stirred in Tim’s gut.
‘Tim!’ Ant called. He was still pale, and he sat on the couch with a blanket around his shoulders. ‘You made it in time for cake.’
‘And for presents?’ Tim asked, hoisting the box.
Ant’s dad peered in at Tim’s box. ‘What’ve you got there, Tim? Looks pretty heavy? Did you ride all the way here with that on your bike?’
‘Course,’ said Tim. ‘It’s Ant’s birthday. Or…it was, anyway.’
Ant beamed, his smile making his face seem less sickly. ‘What is it?’
Tim shuffled across the room, all but barging some of the other kids out of the way, and refusing help from Ant’s dad.
He dumped the box on the ground in front of Ant and said, ‘Tada!’
A few kids peered in, and Ant’s mum wrinkled her nose.
‘It’s all junk!’ someone said.
‘Nah!’ Tim snapped. ‘It ain’t junk. It’s just broken. It’s a radio. Or…it was.’
Ant peered in at the box, pulling out bits and pieces of broken wires and nobs. In seconds, his hands were covered in grease, and one of the girls from their glass giggled nastily.
‘What kind of present is a broken radio?’
But Ant was pulling out the main box, struggling as he tried to manoeuvre through the wires, a look of awe and excitement lighting his face.
‘It’s heavy,’ he said, and his dad quickly helped him pull it out.
‘Not on the couch!’ Ant’s mother barked, but even Ant’s dad wasn’t listening.
‘Hey, Tim,’ he said. ‘This is a really old radio. These are the kind they used to communicate on in the war. Where did you get it?’
‘Secret,’ said Tim. ‘Can’t say.’
‘Well,’ he said, glancing up at Tim and then over at Ant’s delighted face. ‘I think you stumbled across a winner, there kid. You get this thing fixed up Ant, and you could talk to people in other countries.’
The smile on Ant’s face made the whole day—messes and all—well worth the effort.
June 2006 – eleven years old.
They sat shivering at the kitchen island bench as Tim’s Ma stared down at them in disapproval.
‘What exactly where you doing down by the pond at two am at night?’
Ant glanced sideways at Tim, a flush creeping up his neck in shame.
‘We were looking for the Lake Lady,’ said Tim matter-of-factly.
Ant wondered when he would get used to Tim’s boldness. If he’d said that to his mother, they’d have been walloped around the ears.
‘The Lake Lady,’ said Ms Holt, her brows raising, and her lips twitching. She cleared her throat, crossed her arms and asked, ‘At the pond?’
‘She’s a ghost, ain’t she? Why can’t she move places?’
‘She’s a ghost, isn’t she,’ Ms Holt corrected, and Ant recognised the tone in her voice she got whenever she was trying to be mad but couldn’t quite manage it.
It was the same tone that Grandma Belle had whenever Tim and Freddie did something they weren’t supposed to do.
‘It’s the middle of winter,’ said Ms Holt, before Tim could say anything else to get them in even more trouble. ‘You’re both sodden. What happens if Ant gets sick, hm? What would you do then, Tim? I thought you took care of your friends?’
‘I do take care of them!’
This time Tim’s face went red. He shot a quick look at Ant, before his gaze dropped to the ground in a rare show of shame. Ant’s eyebrows rose. He’d never seen Tim ashamed before.
‘Sorry, Ant,’ he mumbled.
‘It’s okay,’ said Ant. ‘I’m alright. Just scared, mostly,’ he laughed nervously.
Tim’s shoulders hunched even further, and Ms Holt shook her head.
‘So then I guess it’s safe to assume that this was your idea, Tim. Scaring the wits out of your best friend.’
Ant’s head snapped up, and he stared at Ms Holt with big eyes.
‘I didn’t mean it,’ Tim complained. ‘He said it was alright if I wasn’t scared. I even said I’d hold his hand. I didn’t know you were so frightened. Why didn’t you tell me?’
Tim’s eyes turned to Ant, beseeching and genuinely upset that he’d frightened Ant. Ant flushed, and was amazed that Tim hadn’t corrected his mother. Ant wasn’t Tim’s best friend. That was Freddie…wasn’t it?
‘I…I’m alright. I was trying to be braver, like you.’
Ant nodded and for some reason, Tim looked surprised.
Ms Holt shook her head. ‘Alright, off with you. Make sure you change your clothes and turn on the heater. And when I come upstairs in fifteen minutes, the lights better be off and there better be two sleeping teenagers. Tim, do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes Ma,’ he said, ducking his head.
‘Alright, off with you,’ she said again.
Tim shot out the door, not hesitating, knowing if he didn’t take this chance, his Ma might change her mind.
Ant followed, but paused in the kitchen doorway, one hand on the frame as he looked back at Tim’s Ma.
‘Don’t worry, Ms Holt. I wouldn’t let him do anything really bad.’
A smile split her pretty face, and her dark, angry eyes softened to a sweet chocolate brown. ‘Oh Ant,’ she said, leaning on the bench and shaking her head at him. ‘Thank heavens for you. You look out for my boy, now. I can trust you, can’t I?’
‘Yes Ma’am,’ said Ant.
With that, he turned and raced back up the stairs after his best friend, knowing that the task was daunting, bordering on impossible, but determined that he could look out for Tim. After all, hadn’t Tim taught him that it was a friend’s solemn duty to make each other feel better?
July 2007 – eleven years old.
The phone rang and rang and rang and Tim wondered if anyone would ever pick up. His hand shook as he held the receiver, while he held a towel with the other, pressing down as hard as he could over the flow of blood.
Ring, ring, ring.
‘Pick up…pick up.’
‘Ant? Where’s your dad?’
‘Get your dad. I need him now.’
Tim waited, glancing down at the reddening towel and the pale face of his best friend’s sister. His sister, in all but blood. Blood that was pooling around his fingers.
His fingers clenched around the receiver.
‘Tim?’ came the deep voice of Ant’s father. ‘What’s wrong?’
For a moment, Tim’s mind went blank. There weren’t any words to describe what had happened, what he was going through. What she was going through. But his eyes found the towel again, felt the moisture against his palm that was too think and too red for him to pretend it was water. He had to make her better. That was his job. No matter if he got in trouble, he had to make her better.
‘I need an ambulance. And a doctor. And blood. Lots of blood. And, uh, a police car. Lot’s of police cars. I don’t know where he is, but you’ll need police cars to catch him before he comes to get her again.’
‘Whoa, Tim, slow down. What’s happened?’
‘He attacked her. He cut her up. You have to come now. With a doctor. There’s…there’s a lot of blood.’
Tim’s hand shook as he gripped the receiver. Why did Ma have to be in town today? He wanted to cry. But he couldn’t because his job wasn’t finished until she was better.
There was a pause on the line, and Tim was frightened—so very frightened—that Ant’s dad wouldn’t believe him. That he would accuse Tim of playing another of his pranks and hang up the phone.
‘Are you at home?’
‘I’ll be there as soon as I can,’ said the thick, heavy voice on the other end. ‘I’ve got an ambulance on the way already. Tim, this is very important, is Genie awake?’
‘She’s quiet. I keep trying to talk to her, but she’s not really answering anymore. I know he did it. She said that before. She thinks he was chasing her but I haven’t seen him.’
‘Okay. I have to hang up now, but I’m going to call again very soon? I need you to answer straight away. Do you understand?’
‘I’m on my way, Tim.’
‘And you have cops? Going to Genie’s house?’
‘I have cops going to Genie’s house.’
‘Okay…hurry,’ he said, and slammed the receiver back down.
He looked back down at her pale face. He’d had to drag her inside so he could call Ant. She was so much smaller than him, and yet, she’d been so heavy. Her eyes, normally so grey and bright, were dim and kept fluttering shut.
‘They’re coming, Genie,’ Tim said to her, leaning both hands on the bloody towel. ‘Ant’s dad is a cop, remember? He’s coming to help you. Just stay awake a bit longer, okay? Okay Genie?’
The phone rang, and Tim fumbled for the phone, almost dropping it with his slick red hands. Ant’s dad asked a lot of questions that Tim didn’t remember.
Instead, when asked about what happened, Tim could only remember the panic. The breathlessness. The lump that stuck in his throat as the longest ten minutes of his life dragged out into an eternity.
He was still by the phone when they arrived. He heard them. They came screaming into the driveway sirens blasting through the air, announcing their arrival in a barrage of tones that sent relief washing through Tim. But his job wasn’t over yet.
People flooded in, shouting, asking him lots of questions, trying to take him away from her—but she needed him—and Ant’s dad gently pulling him to the side.
He didn’t remember the drive to the hospital, only that they’d tried to put him in a different ambulance. Ant’s dad stopped them. Tim thought he should be looking for him, for the one who had sliced up one of his best friends. His sister in all but blood. Instead, he sat with Tim in the back, staring at the small, pale little body in the big stretcher and shaking almost as much as Tim was.
‘You did good, Tim,’ he said when they got there, laying a big, heavy hand on Tim’s shoulder as the doctors wheeled Genie away. ‘You did real good.’
Another blank spot. Memory wiped black in the panic and the shock of it all. If he really tried, he could recall snatches and bits and pieces. Shouting, crying, his Ma standing in front of Tim and shouting at a man in a blue uniform, doctors coming in and out of the room over and over again, and the strange way the blood drained away in the sink as he tried to wash his hands clean.
So much blood. How could someone so small bleed so much?
His memory didn’t clear until much later. He was sitting on the edge of the bed with a blanket wrapped tight around him, staring off into the distance as he shivered. A face peered into the room, and Tim tried to focus his gaze.
‘Tim?’ asked a deep voice—Ant’s dad was back. ‘Someone wants to see you, is that alright?’
‘It’s me,’ came the soft, uncertain voice of another of Tim’s best friends.
Ant’s footsteps were light, almost inaudible as he trotted over to the bed. ‘You okay?’
Tim nodded, another shiver rippling through him. He looked down into Ant’s earnest blue eyes, worry creasing them at the edges.
‘They got him,’ said Ant, climbing up onto the bed to sit next to Tim, pressing his shoulder against Tim’s. ‘Dad found him. He said they’re going to send him away for a long time.’
Tim swallowed, turning to stare at Ant. ‘So she’s okay?’
‘She’s okay. You did your job.’
Another shiver rippled through him. He took a deep breath, trying to feel something, anything. Instead, for the first time since it all began, Tim felt safe enough to cry.
August 2008 – thirteen years old.
Ant stared at the hoof prints stamped into the soggy earth.
At the centre of the ring, Tim and Mrs Holt struggled with their newest acquisition. A large, cloudy stallion with a long white tall that refused to be bridled. He was the biggest horse Ant had ever seen, and watching Tim and his tiny mother attempt to wrestle with him made Ant’s stomach churn.
Tim jerked back as the horse reared, kicking it’s legs and spraying thick dollops of mud everywhere.
‘Just get out of here Tim,’ Mrs Holt snapped, pulling on the reigns as the horse pulled away from Tim again. ‘You’re working him up!’
Tim scowled and threw down the reigns, glaring at the anxious horse as if it was purposefully trying to make his day harder. He shook his head and trudged for the fence where Ant stood.
The horse reared again, tossed its head, and yanked free from Mrs Holt’s grasp. She cried out as the horse charged.
Ant’s eyes went wide, his heart stopping, lodging in his chest as the horse ran toward Tim’s unprotected back.
Tim glanced back and then, absurdly, stopped, turning to face the charging horse straight on. Ant’s heart lurched.
It was so typically Tim. So reckless and headless of the calmest way out of the situation.
Ant threw open the gate, his feet slipping in the mud as he reached out to grasp at Tim’s arm. Blood rushed in his ears along with the sound of heavy hoof prints. The kind that could crush bone with one steady stomp.
His fingers closed around Tim’s arm and he yanked, pulling his startled friend through the gate and slamming it shut.
Tim went sprawling, thrown off balance by Ant’s hurry. Ant, too, slipped in the mud, but fell forward onto the gate he had just shut. Toward the furious, approaching horse.
Air blew into his face and he found himself staring up at the grey stallion.
The horse stomped it’s hoof, pawing the ground as it tossed its head, apparently unimpressed by Ant blocking his path.
Ant’s heart hammered in his chest, and he took a slow, deep breath, exhaling steadily. He unclenched his hands from the fence and, with an almost painful caution, reached up to rest his hands on either side of the horse’s shoulders.
‘What’re you doing!’ hissed Tim from behind him.
‘Shhh, easy now,’ said Ant, brushing his hands down the course, dusty coat. ‘He just doesn’t understand. It can be scary coming way out here, can’t it? There’s a lot of things you’re not sure of.’
The horse snorted, but—to Ant’s surprise—didn’t pull away. He turned his head, staring at Ant through one big brown eye.
‘I know,’ said Ant. ‘You can rage all you like. We’ll still be here.’
Mrs Holt eased up alongside the the stallion, eyebrows raised in surprise as Ant murmured to the horse.
‘Well, I think that’ll do for a day,’ she said, running a fond hand over the flank of the horse. ‘Why don’t you put him in his stable, Ant?’
‘Well you might as well get better acquainted, seeing as you’ll be working together.’
‘What’re you talking about Ma?’ asked Tim, pushing himself out of the mud to lean on the fence.
The stallion snorted, tossing his head as Tim came too close for comfort. Tim scowled at it.
‘I mean,’ said Mrs Holt, shifting so that she was blocking Tim from the horse’s line of sight. ‘That I think Ant should be our new stable hand. If he’s up for it, of course.’
‘You…you want me to help? Really?’
‘You have a calm temperament. You always have. And if you can calm Tim out of one of his moods, I have no doubt you’ll work wonders on the horses.’
A flutter of excitement stirred in Ant’s chest.
‘He’s only thirteen,’ said Tim, a sulky tone coming into his voice.
‘He can handle it,’ said Mrs Holt. ‘Can’t you Ant? Of course, you’d get paid.’
Delight lit up Ant’s face and he nodded. ‘Sure,’ he said, and he turned to Tim in excitement. ‘And if I’m working here, we’ll get to hang out more without Mum getting mad!’
The irritation left Tim’s features, the creases in his brow smoothing out as he considered this. ‘I suppose that’d be alright.’
Ant beamed and looked up into the face of the still restless stallion. ‘What do you think? Can I do it?’
The horse shifted, tossed it’s head, and then huffed into Ant’s face. Soft and billowing. Like a dog snuffling around your clothes in greeting. Ant laughed.
‘That’ll do for me,’ he said.