If wishes were horses then beggars would ride. At least that was what his mum said, but this this time Rob wasn’t wishing for something big like a bike. He just wished people would stop making such a big deal out of his friendship with Kylie. It wasn’t as if he liked her because she was a girl. He liked her because she was tough and didn’t fuss about a bit of mud or eel guts. Yet if they were seen talking together at school the boys made stupid jokes and the girls sniggered behind their hands. And the one time she’d stopped off at his place after school his mum looked sideways at her bare feet and didn’t even offer her a biscuit.
Their friendship caused Kylie some strife too and by tacit agreement they’d taken it underground. They were the only children living up Hill Road but instead of leaving together after school Kylie would set off alone with Rob following ten minutes later. Around the first corner a gnarly old totara stretched a limb out over the fence. Here, Kylie would sit until Rob came along then drop down, lithe as a cat and they would wander on, sometimes talking, sometimes not. Generally the mood was set by Kylie and dictated by the state of her relationship with the person she called ESD. There were, she said, plenty of stories about evil stepmothers, none about evil stepdads like Joe. One day she might change that but in the meantime she didn’t want to talk about it.
Most Saturday afternoons, Rob headed off to the swamp at the back of the farm to catch an eel for Timmy-the-cat and usually, Kylie would turn up there as well. The swamp consisted mainly of boggy ground covered in rushes, but here and there it was broken by peaty ridges clothed in scrubby manuka and wattle threaded about with tangles of taihoa, a rootless creeper that clung to the bushes with little suckers.
The children fished in the creek that ran into the swamp and sometimes ventured out to the nearest ridge, hopping from one soggy hummock to the next, checking the puddles of tea coloured water for mud fish and tadpoles. Among the manuka they competed to be the first to spot a green gecko, its mouth frozen in a permanent grin.
One hot summer day Rob was fishing when Kylie came running down the hill and plonked down beside him. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said back.
He noted a fresh bruise on her arm and knew it would be matched by others on her body. For that was what ESD did, she’d let slip – held her by the arm while he belted her. And once, she’d hinted at something else, too gross to discuss even with Rob. Tentatively, he’d suggested telling his mum but was secretly relieved when Kylie said, “Don’t you dare.”
Now, she leaned back on her hands, jiggled a foot and said, “I’ve got an idea.”
“Promise not to tell?”
“You know Daddy Long Legs spiders?”
“Well, Teena says they’re really poisonous but their fangs are too short to bite through human skin.” Rob pulled a face. Teena was an annoying smartarse but he had to admit she knew lots of stuff. “So?”
“So I’m gonna catch heaps and feed them to ESD.”
“What if they kill him?”
“How d’you know?”
“He’s too big. They’ll just make him a bit sick. Anyway…” She didn’t say, who cares? but Rob knew she was thinking it.
“So how’re you gonna get him to eat them?”
“Easy. Saturday night they go to the pub. When they get home Mum goes to bed but he’s hungry and I have to make him a snack. His favourite is mushed up sardines on toast. Next time it’ll be sardines and spiders on toast.”
“What if you get caught?”
“I won’t. I’ll mush them in. And he likes a bit of vinegar as well. He won’t even know.”
“Then what’s the point?”
She grinned. “The point is, I’ll know. You can help me catch them.”
Rob couldn’t bring himself to say no but he didn’t want to say yes either so he hauled in his line and said, “Let’s go look for geckos.”
Kylie stood up. She pointed into the distance where the wetland ended in a greyish line of sand hills. “We should go there,” she said. “Have a swim.”
“It’s too far.”
She leaned forward as if drawn to that distant shore. “Well, another day. We could gather tuatua. Make a fire, sleep in the sand hills and come back the next day.”
Rob saw the craziness of it; his mum ringing the police, searchers, hidings. “Are you nuts?” he asked.
Kylie gave a little gasp. Rob wasn’t sure if it was a laugh or a sob. “Yeah. Probably. ESD would kill me.”
Over the following week Rob made excuses about the spiders. He forgot, or he didn’t have time. On Friday, when Kylie asked he said, “There aren’t any. Mum sprays them all.”
She gave an exasperated flick of her eyebrows. “Don’t be so useless! Look in the shed.”
Sure enough, the shed yielded up three spiders which he captured in a jar. On the way to his room, he passed through the kitchen where Mum was doing the ironing. She did lots of ironing. “What’ve you got there?” she asked.
“Daddy Long Legs,” he said. “Did you know they’re really poisonous but their fangs are too short to bite through human skin?”
“That’s an urban legend,” Mum said.
“What’s an urban legend?”
“Something lots of people believe, but it’s not true.”
“Teena says it’s true.”
Mum smiled. “Ask Mr Google. He knows more than Teena.”
Sure enough, Mr Google said the spiders had hardly enough poison to kill a fly. They would be covered in germs of course. Joe might still get sick. Rob was OK with that. On Saturday afternoon he decided to be a chicken and not tell Kylie. He handed over the spiders and said he had to go home and do some jobs.
Saturday nights he was allowed to read in bed until late. Shortly after turning out his light he heard Joe’s car go past and was just dozing off when another vehicle went by, travelling fast. That’d never happened before. His eyes flew open. A bad feeling churned his gut. Still awake when he heard the vehicle returning, he leapt out of bed and jerked the curtain back. There was no mistaking the flashing light of an ambulance.
He crept back to bed and curled up into a ball. Surely it was too soon for Joe to have got sick? Even though he wasn’t sure he believed in God, he prayed that Kylie was all right.
Hesitantly, next morning at breakfast he asked Mum and Dad if they’d heard the ambulance. Mum rattled the tea pot and said, “Nothing to do with us.”
As soon as he could, Rob slipped away to the swamp. Kylie wasn’t there. He climbed the hill and looked down on the house on the other side of the ridge. Joe’s car sat in front of the garage but the only sign of life was a dog that emerged from its kennel by the shed, stretched and gave a whine like it was asking, “Where’s my breakfast?”
He went back down the hill, sat in their usual place and watched the changing patterns of colour wash over the swamp as the rushes bent in the wind. Watching a hawk circling above, he lay back on the grass and fell into a doze. When Kylie arrived, she roused him with a nudge to his knee, sat down and answered his greeting with a wordless lift of her chin. Rob waited a moment then asked, “What happened?”
It was funny, she said, how you made a plan and it worked perfectly in your head then one tiny thing happened and it didn’t work anymore. The tiny thing was, just as she was pouring the spiders in with the sardines, ESD came into the kitchen for a drink of water.
“He’s never done that before,” she said. “He saw the spiders and came at me so, I threw them at him.” She couldn’t resist a fleeting grin. “There were spiders in his hair, down his neck.” She took a deep breath. “Then he grabbed me but he was a bit drunk and I pushed him and he yelled and crashed backwards and hit his head on the edge of the stove. Mum comes running, he’s out cold on the floor and she’s screaming that I’ve killed him.”
“So did you? Kill him?”
“No. Cracked his skull though.”
She dropped her head to her knees and mumbled, “Mum made me go with her, to the hospital. People asked heaps of questions and, a nurse made me show her my arms and they found out about … everything.”
Rob wanted to say something but he couldn’t find the words so he put what he hoped was a comforting hand on her shoulder and waited. Eventually she lifted her head and wiped her face with her sleeve. Gently, he asked, “Want to go look for geckos?”
She shook her head. “No. I think I want to go home.”
“OK. See ya.” He watched her trudge up the hill.
She didn’t come to school on Monday. Or Tuesday. By Wednesday the word was around all the kids that Kylie had tried to kill Joe and she and her mum had left. She never came back.
So, Rob thought, his wish had kind of come true. No more teasing and no more ESD for Kylie. Rob tried to be glad for her, but he didn’t go to the swamp any more, didn’t go hunting for geckos. Anyway, Teena said lizards were evil spirits. That could, of course, be another kind of legend.
A member of the Franklin Writers group, Janet Pates writes for adults and children. She is a past winner of the Tom Fitzgibbon Award and the National Flash fiction Award and has produced two books of adult short stories. She also writes non fiction with a particular interest in local history.