September 2009 – thirteen years old.
The morning began in an orange haze.
Sunlight struggled to filter through the massive dust storm that had descended across the majority of the Australian east coast. From New South Wales, all the way up to Northern Queensland.
Everyone was abuzz with it on the morning bus. The faint orange light cast by the dust storm threw everything into an eerie glow, and people were speculating all sorts of reasons for the phenomenon from the reasonable to the outrageous. It was just the kind of thing the twins would have loved, but, neither of them were on the bus.
Tim supposed that should have been an omen. The second one, if he counted the dust storm.
But he didn’t. So he made his way to school, not at all expecting the disaster that was to come. He was going to have his work cut out for him that day. His duty was going to be tested.
The problem didn’t start straight away; though, if Tim were paying closer attention, he might have foreseen it.
First, Ant was late.
Ant was never late. He was almost always annoyingly on time. Not through any fault of his own, though. No. Ant’s perpetual timeliness was entirely to do with his mother.
Yet, today, with the twins away and the dust storm pervading every nook and cranny of the school, Ant was late.
He came to school halfway through the first period, handed the teacher a note, and took his seat in silence.
Tim wasted no time. ‘Oi, you break down or something?’
Ant glanced sideways at him, and gave him a one shouldered shrug.
Tim frowned. ‘Your Mum don’t think the world is ending or something, does she?’ he asked, waggling his eyebrows the way he knew made Ant chuckle.
Another one shouldered shrug.
Tim frowned. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, studying his friend with the most serious frown anyone had ever seen on his face.
That was how it had started.
Someone shoved Tim’s shoulder, causing his elbow to slip and for Tim to smack himself in the face.
‘Maybe you should pay more attention instead of staring at your boyfriend.’
Tim didn’t even get a chance to respond.
Ant’s chair toppled backwards and he moved past Tim’s table in a blur of furious speed, his emotionless mask cracked to reveal the rage and pain bubbling underneath the surface.
His fist cracked into the face of the boy who’d shoved Tim, loud enough for the entire classroom to hear.
‘Don’t you speak to him like that!’ Ant’s voice was loud and rough and so, so very wrong.
In an instant Tim was on his feet. He didn’t care about the teacher. He didn’t care about the boy whose nose was no doubt broken. He didn’t care about the girls squealing and the other boys getting ready for a brawl.
He only cared about Ant.
About his friend.
‘What’s happened?’ he asked, his own voice strangely calm and quiet in the chaos. ‘What’s wrong?’
Ant turned, surprise etched into his features for just a fraction of a second. The dust storm cast the room into that same, eery orange glow as the rest of town. As if someone had put a filter over the sun.
It cast shadows over Ant’s face, turning his usually kind and gentle features into that of a trapped animal. His normally blue eyes, light as a summer afternoon, made amber in the glow.
‘I…’ Ant’s gaze refocused on the boy. ‘He insulted you.’
‘Ant,’ Tim said, his voice harder. ‘What’s happened.’
‘I think you should go home, Anthony,’ said Mrs Parker, her voice softening as she made her way up the aisle toward them. ‘I’m going to call your Mother. You need to be with your family right now.’
Tim started. He saw the pity in Mrs Parker’s eyes and knew, knew, what pain it was that had turned Ant, kind, gentle, caring Ant, into someone…someone like Tim.
Without a word he stepped closer, reaching out to pull Ant into the tightest hug he could manage. He didn’t balk when Ant broke. He didn’t pull away when the sobs grew loud and uncontrollable. He didn’t care that tears soaked his shirt. He didn’t listen when Mrs Parker tried to pry them apart and get Ant to calm down.
He just stood there, forming a support beam with his own body as his best friend clung to him. He held together the pieces of Ant’s broken heart until Ant was calm enough to hold them together himself.
‘I’ll get Ma to pick us up,’ he said, when the sobs had died down to hiccups. ‘We can have ice-cream, and go to the quarry, and see Shano’s cows. He has calves now, did you know?’
Ant shook his head, hands still clenched around Tim’s shoulders. ‘I didn’t know,’ he mumbled.
‘Want to see them?’
‘Mm. Yeah. I don’t want to go home.’
‘You don’t have to,’ said Tim, and he shifted ever so slightly, to give Mrs Parker a hard glare. ‘You don’t have to go anywhere you don’t want to.’
It was later, after Ma had picked them up and indeed taken them for ice-cream, that Tim learned about the shooting. While Ant was in the bathroom, Ma told him how Ant’s policeman father had died in service. There had already been an announcement about the funeral. Ant’s father was well known and well loved in town, but his mother was asking people to pay their respects at a later date and allow the family to have a small intimate funeral.
‘We’re not invited?’ Tim asked, his fists clenched.
‘Hush,’ Ma said, her eyes darting to the restroom. ‘It’s not for us to intrude. All we can do is be there for Ant when he needs us.’
‘Just not at the funeral,’ Tim said. He crossed his arms. ‘Well I’m going.’
‘You are not.’
‘She can’t stop me waiting out by the street,’ he said, scowling. ‘He can’t do it by himself. He needs me to be there, so I’m going. Even if it gets me in trouble. That’s my job!’
‘Sh, he’s coming,’ said Tim, waving at his mother. ‘Ready to see the calves?’
Ant’s dull blue eyes lifted from the squeaky linoleum floor and he nodded, a little wobbly, but a nod nonetheless.