The old man would give you a flogging for a lot less than dipping into his stash. Not that I’d ever wanted to touch dope. I’d sworn myself enemy to all things that made him who he was, dope being a great contributor. But down behind the shed, where the long grass scratched my shins, I clipped off a decent chunk. The buds felt like furry balls of cotton. I zip-locked it and stashed it down my jocks. Sometimes life’s about crossing lines and hoping you don’t leave too much behind. Making AFL is the sunshine.
‘Jace! What the hell are you doing?’
Pointlessly, I let the scissors fall into the grass. Triangle Face was calling from up near the house.
‘Dad’ll kill ya.’ She gripped her nightie both sides and pulled it down, like she was cold. It was morning and already warm.
‘Not if he doesn’t find out.’
‘He marks the lines.’ True. Sharpie marks against the silver shed like charting a child’s height.
‘Keep your voice down. Look, I need it. To get to the city. Dad won’t take me.’
‘Hurry, then. I’ll watch out.’
I hoicked my footy bag around my shoulder and walked towards the house. Brianna folded her arms tightly across her chest.
‘You know Dad’s gunna be pissed…’
I couldn’t look her in the eye. Couldn’t say anything. Hadn’t thought of what might happen once I’d run.
‘No, it’s okay, Jace.’ She put an arm around me, kissed my cheek. ‘Just don’t forget us when you win the Brownlow.’
I knew she only said that to make me smile. ‘I promise I’ll be back by tomorrow night.’
‘Alright…well, piss off then.’
Waiting for my ride, I watched early sunlight split the clouds and bring the valley to life.
Reziah got out the passenger side and started dancing, pushing up the air above his shoulders. ‘Superstar, gunna light it up or what?’
We slapped hands and bumped chests. My boy. We’d dominated the representative leagues and now we were trying out for states. If you don’t make states, kiss AFL goodbye. People write Reziah off because he’s stick-thin but his muscles are taut like nautical rope and I’d seen him level guys twice his size on the footy field.
The driver’s door opened and Malik appeared. He wore a Lakers singlet, had a dark goatee that horseshoed from his chin, and moved with a stoner slink. He’d been in the year above Reziah and me at school but dropped out a few years ago after head-butting a teacher. He was Reziah’s cousin and we had no other way of getting to Perth, where we’d crash at their auntie’s place. He asked for the weed before even shaking hands. I passed it to him and he made that clicking noise with his cheek.
‘And you’re taking us to the game tomorrow? We gotta be there twelve sharp.’
Malik sized me up good. He didn’t like talking.
‘Bro,’ Reziah chucked an arm around me, ‘This my cuz. We good. Let’s jet, gotta pick up Jasmine from Donnybrook.’
Malik drove an old banged-up Commodore station wagon that reeked of vanilla-air freshener. The trees were small until we passed Boyanup, where the older gums get some size. Reziah and I talked shop — about who will make it, who won’t, and everyone in between. How we’ll look to give each other chop outs, and the prospect of our first trip interstate: Victoria, the home of AFL. Malik said little, stuttered what he did.
Closer to Donnybrook were the wineries that Dad bitched about, cursing city people and eastern staters and anyone else he thought fucked him over. Always pointed out the old farm he grew up on. Reckoned they was the good years.
At the old Gull servo that doubles as The Fruit Barn, Malik filled up and Reziah bought supplies. Usually I never let no-one shout me shit, hate them teachers who keep me back and ask if I’ve got food. Like I’m fucking charity. Except Reziah’s got that Aboriginal thing so if he’s got splash then it’s ours. Like whenever I’ve got coin he never gives a shit telling me how it should be spent. I like that.
Returning to the car, Reziah ran to Jasmine and lifted her up so high she squealed. The people filling up threw dirty looks. He put her down and I remembered how far off the charts she was. Burning something so strong it shifted your feet and checked your thoughts. She arm-waved Reziah a story that finished with them bent over in shameless laughter. Even the onlookers smiled. I’d come close to hooking up with her once or twice, almost… but in year 12 we didn’t get any classes together.
‘Oh, shit, no way,’ she said when she noticed me. ‘Jace Dalton.’
Reziah chucked her a chocolate milk over the roof of the car. ‘He going states. With me.’
She nodded a half-smile half-frown I hoped was all acceptance. When she looked at you, she looked at you.
‘Ta-ta-take a photo.’
I startled around. Malik’s pupils hovered suspiciously near the overhang of his eyebrows.
I glared back at him, more bravado than balls.
Malik had a reputation.
The roads were quiet and pot-holed through Wellington National Park. The trees were blackened but whether from bushfire or burn-off wasn’t clear. Jasmine sat up back but leant forward chatting to the boys. Malik didn’t stutter as much in Aboriginal English and he unwound into his seat instead of that hunched-up driving he’d been doing. Reziah and I had agreed we’d shoot straight up the coast, so I asked what the deal was with the unexplained ventures on the zombie roads.
Malik snorted. ‘The police-man.’
‘These wheels hot?’
‘A bl-bla-blackfella got a car?’
‘S’not like that.’
‘He not saying that, he a poor boy.’ Reziah lit a ciggie and passed it to Malik, turned around in his seat. ‘We gotta make a stop in Armadale. Need a dollar.’
‘But I thought—’
‘Who-who-who cares what you fu-fucken thought?’ Malik glared into the rear-view.
We ended up on the State Route, way off the coastal one, not including the slowdowns for towns. For a second the train tracks that ran alongside the freeway made me think I should’ve taken the train but where would I have stayed? How would I have gotten to the game? Stirling — a private school boy in our rep team trying out for states — had offered a lift and a place to stay but Reziah said that was shame, and I had to agree, because I wasn’t about to offer Stirling’s old man weed in exchange for a kip, feed, and fuel. The look he gave me when he dropped me off after footy training, like he knew something about me. Man, fuck him.
The drive was national park on the right, pastures on the left. Dad can’t drive this road without pointing out all them yellowed patches — salinity stains — like dog’s piss on a green lawn. Always going on about decades of mismanagement and how the Government and big bastard corporations fucked it. Always when on the pipe or sauce, telling anyone who’ll listen, but mostly himself.
On the outskirts of the city, towards the hills, we turned off for Armadale. We parked down a driveway of shoddy units flaking yellow paint. ‘Be a minute, cuz,’ Reziah directed me without eyeing, which meant stay in the car.
I played games on my phone for half an hour but my battery died. It was hotting up. I picked at the felt dipping off the inline. I hopped out and banged the unit door. The bass from inside shuddered the windows. Two girls opened the door and the one in the red bandanna said, ‘Bye, Felicia.’
‘But my name’s Jace,’ I said into the slamming door.
I got back into the car and practised breathing exercises from school. Closed eyes and counting to ten, slower each time.
Instinct kicked. Shaped up and ready to right hook.
Jasmine. Frightened. Our chests heaved blowing air. Slowly, she relaxed into the passenger seat and asked if I was okay.
‘I just wasn’t expecting you—’
‘About them girls slamming the door.’
‘What’s their problem?’
She made a sound with her mouth. ‘You know. Some people just be that way.’
‘Why’d you come back, then?’
‘I don’t…’ She hugged herself. ‘You was all tense. They didn’t invite you back. I didn’t want you scared or nothing.’
‘I’m not scared.’
My breaths searched for a rhythm that didn’t come. The air was hot and resistant. A warning. If I got like this in class, I went to the Well-Being room to let it pass.
‘Malik gunna be angry if you keep ripping the car up.’
I didn’t realize I was still picking. About to say like I could give a fuck, except she smiled, and I couldn’t help but mirror.
‘True, you might be drafted?’
I told myself to put my eyes on her face or out the window or anywhere but her black tank top, which showed cleavage and hinted nipple. ‘That’s the plan.’
‘I go for Freo so I hope you go there.’
‘Wanna go over east.’
‘Won’t you miss family?’
‘Kind of,’ —a lie — ‘but I’m gunna send money back.’ Which was the truth. ‘Anyway, what are you going to do after school?’
She said she had family in jail and Graylands. She knew how important it was that her people have strong figures. Originally, her family came down south to get away from all the shit in the city. She wanted to do a bridging course for university to be a social worker or a beauty course to help her people feel beautiful. ‘If you don’t stand for something, you’re not really anything.’
I squeezed my hands. Was Triangle Face walking our siblings home from school now?
‘Why you so worked up?’
‘It’s like, me and Rez have this saying, making AFL is the sunshine, the light.’
‘Not just footy?’
‘Not just footy. My ticket.’
‘What you gunna do if you don’t make it?’
‘Everything else is just clouds.’
‘Like, not important?’
‘You get it,’ I said too enthusiastically.
She giggled, said I was crazy, but also, softened, gave me her eyes. ‘I understand, Jace. It’s important.’
When she heard you, she listened.
The unit door closed, the boys swaggering back. Reziah with flared nostrils, Malik with a smile that concerned me. Jasmine’s red nails scratched silver streaks onto her black skin.
Malik mustn’t have been concerned about the jacks anymore, because we screeched out of the units and fanged down Armadale Road. Silence stiffened like the morning after Dad and Mum have hit the pipe, when the things they’ve said linger worse than the bruises. I didn’t want to say anything but it was too much.
‘Malik, if we get caught speeding…’
‘Wh-What youse yarning about?’
‘Sharnelle and Cynthia slam the door in his face,’ Jasmine said.
‘He co-co-come the door?’
Jasmine didn’t reply.
‘Youse didn’t come back.’ I met his eyes.
Reziah, who avoided awkwardness like first period, pumped gangster rap so loud the speakers crackled.
Malik turned it way back down. ‘Rez say you bin boxin’.’
‘But you a fighter?’
‘When I have to. Got younger brothers and sisters.’
‘Pr-pr-protecting your own. Dass important.’
I gripped the door.
‘I bo-bo-box. In the ring.’
‘Th-th-three and no-no loss.’
He clicked his cheek.
But I didn’t know what to say. Was he trying to find a connection? Or warning me? Either way, I couldn’t tell and didn’t stoke the conversation.
We pulled onto a dead lawn up from a brick house that sat down a low rise. Reziah and I dumped our stuff in the room we were sharing — he on the bed, me on the mattress. The house was sweet, no mould or broken windows, and heaps of food in the cupboards. Malik and Jasmine went down the shops, so I offered to cook up. At footy they taught us all about food and diet, so Reziah and I scrounged a decent pre-game meal; fried onions, beans and canned fish, got stock and some rice on the boil, and steamed a broccoli even though it was on the turn. Malik and Jasmine returned with plastic bags hanging off their arms, going on about the smells. Nothing felt better than contributing and while I dished up, Malik put two bananas, a sports drink and a protein bar on the bench. I looked at him for a second but couldn’t work it out so I didn’t thank him. He nodded at me and left the room. This moment always gets replayed in my head, except in those versions I always thank him.
We kicked it on the mangy couches in the backyard, eating under the clouds that smudged the sunset blood-red. Kendrick Lamar played out the speakers. After eating, we slid our empty bowls into the middle of the table, and Malik and Jasmine were sipping goon, and Reziah toked on a spliff, and I sank into the couch with my feet kicked up, and nobody said nothing. Maybe this was what people meant when they spoke about wanting to go home and kick it. It was nice like that.
We didn’t even hear the coppers come in.
They were just there. Standing before the open sliding glass door. An old man with an angry nose and a young lady with a sleeve of colourful tattoos. Mouths open, sharp eyes.
We glanced at each other. Runner for the back fence and cut through the park? Or play this cool?
Jasmine, typically, wouldn’t let something like this slide. ‘Youse can’t be here. We didn’t invite you in.’
‘We were called about a possible break and enter. We knocked and no one answered.’
‘Man, that’s bullshit.’ Reziah stood up.
‘Sit down now.’ The man stepped toward him, hand placed on hip, fingers swiftly unlatching the clip above the gun.
Reziah sat back down, shaky knees and eyeing the concrete. ‘This my aunties’ house.’
‘She aware you’re residing here?’
‘No-one’s hurting anyone,’ I said.
The man picked up the plastic bag and sniffed. ‘Is this yours? Over ten grams in here.’
‘Youse gunna dick us for weed?’ Jasmine’s hands shot out.
‘It’s a criminal offense.’
‘Reziah,’ Jasmine said. ‘Malik on parole…’
Malik growled for her to shut-up. Reziah’s knees shook so violently the caps thudded each other.
‘Is this yours, son?’ The officer held the bag towards Malik. ‘Speak up.’
Ants sprawled from the cracked concrete. Were they worker ants, miner ants, or foraging ants?
‘If no-one owns up for this… That’ll mean a trip down to the station for everyone.’ The old guy looked at us like it would be his pleasure, like he knew our type.
We knew that look well.
My thighs stung from pinching them.
‘It’s mine,’ said Jasmine.
The man nodded to the lady who took her cuffs out and motioned towards Jasmine, but Malik stood to her. She flinched. The older officer gripped his gun.
‘Na-na-na, man. It’s mine.’
‘Malik, you on probation,’ said Jasmine.
‘Sh-sh-shut your hole,’ he growled.
The male officer chuckled. ‘Ya hear that? I’m shocked. The boy’s on parole.’
‘Reziah,’ Jasmine said. ‘Your cousin gunna get locked-up.’
The lady cuffed Malik, who turned to Reziah: ‘Te-te-tell mah mum…and ta-ta-take the car to foot…’
Malik stopped. Scared and frustrated and confused. The lady averted her eyes and softened her hold. The male officer shifted on his unpolished boots. Reziah was biting his fingernails. Jasmine fumed but with watery eyes. There was something forgiving while everyone waited for Malik to get the words out.
‘The ke-ke-keys in mah f-f-front po-po-pocket… in mah ba-ba-bag. Light it up, cuz.’
They took Malik away.
Things didn’t work out with Jasmine. She couldn’t look either of us in the eye. Before leaving for her cousins, she finally said all those things that had her thumping the floors and grunting. ‘Youse fellas ain’t got no code. Youse shame. Ya hear me? Shame.’ The slammed door cracked my heart.
Reziah and I didn’t feel like staying up so we turned in early. Neither of us moved to the spare room. I thought it was because we were too tired to move. But now I think on it, it’s obvious we didn’t want to be alone.
Our thoughts squirmed our bodies in the sheets, sweaty, twisted and exposed. Long breaths huffed out every now and then. No matter how hard I tried to think about football — about my second and third efforts, about taking my first options, about running hard when nothing was left in the tank — my thoughts drifted back home where I wondered if dad had flipped. Or Malik’s jail cell. I hoped it wasn’t too hot.
‘I can’t stop feeling… feeling weird.’
‘Malik knowed what he was doing. Right?’
‘He must have… Rez?’
‘You reckon one day, if we win a premiership together, they’d write a story about us?’
‘I bet they would. Like the ones they do about brothers or the kids that got drafted from the same street.’
‘It would go over both pages. And tell about us smoking up the rich kids on the field.’
‘Becoming best mates and playing states before getting drafted the same team?’
‘Making AFL is the Sunshine.’
‘Everything else is just clouds.’
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