(first published in Pigface and other stories, MRP 2018, and again in the 2019 Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual)
His dad would not stop talking. Even as they strode up the leaf-scattered path, he kept on blabbing. Crap about aerobic fitness and muscle mass. Dylan watched his father’s calves flex and relax below the black Nike shorts. More words came flying back—Pace. Lungs. Workout. It was always about the workout.
Dylan checked for his half-sister and stepmum. Emmy pranced along a few metres back, and Talitha followed close behind. Spotting a fresh audience, his sister jumped towards him like a rabbit, her small hands held like paws. Dylan lifted an arm, dangling an invisible object.
“Hey bunny, want a carrot?”
Emmy bounced faster, giggling. Talitha laughed too, her teeth white in her tanned face.
“You’re a goose, Miss Em.” His stepmother circled her daughter’s slight body and kissed the side of her face.
Talitha was so different to Dylan’s steady, earnest mother that he’d been wary at first. He’d watched his dad’s new wife closely, looking for signs that her cheerfulness was fake. But when he stayed over, she was the same the next day. And the next fortnight, and two weeks after that, until years had passed and his doubts were long gone.
“I’m not a goose, I’m a rabbit!” Emmy wriggled in her mother’s arms.
“Well off you go then, rabbit.” Talitha kissed her once more before letting her go.
Dylan gave a thumbs-up to Emmy and turned back to the path as it narrowed and grew steeper. The rainforest pressed close, dripping on his arms. Ferns nodded and dipped in the gloom beneath the trees.
A violent scuffling nearby made him jump—just a brush turkey, scratching in the leaves.
His father paused several metres ahead. “How’s everyone doing?” he yelled. The rucksack with their supplies appeared weightless on his rod-straight back. “Are we smashing it?”
Dylan pushed wet hair off his forehead. He wasn’t feeling so great. Hiking was for athletes. He pictured his electric guitar, propped in the corner of his bedroom, and ran his left thumb across the calloused tips of his other four fingers. He’d been practicing more lately—chords, fretwork, sidestepping. He hated the school bands—he’d quit bow-tied Mr Fryer’s jazz ensemble last year—but some older kids were forming an indie band and he planned to try out.
“Yep.” His voice came out deep, thank goodness. Now and then it still squeaked. “All good here.” He tried to sound positive. His dad was into positive.
Bobbing up beside him, Emmy cupped her hands around her mouth. “We are totally smashing it!”
Talitha called back, easy and relaxed, “We’re great, Steve!”
His father made a megaphone with his own hands. “Awesome!”
Dylan hitched up his jeans and kept walking.
Halfway there, his head was aching, and his breakfast Nutrigrain bobbed in his guts. His friend Jake had brought a few beers over the night before; Jake said his parents had so much booze, they’d never notice it was gone. When Dylan’s mum had switched off her reading light, Dylan and Jake had sprawled on the patchy back lawn drinking lukewarm Tooheys and sniggering at the stars. Now he was paying for it.
“So.” Steve was still yapping, ploughing on uphill. “Any…chicks…scene?”
Dylan was sweating rivers. His stomach churned and he had a desperate urge to sit down. How could his dad talk and hike in this November heat?
“Nuh. No chicks.”
“What? By…time…your age…six!”
Dylan had heard it before—how his dad was a player right from his teens, dating a stream of girls until the day he met Dylan’s mother. And even then, Dylan had recently found out, it wasn’t long after the wedding that his dad discovered girlfriends again—except these ones were on the side. Like salad, or chips.
“Yeah, well.” Dylan concentrated on placing one foot in front of the other, willing the nausea away. “I guess I’m not you, Dad.”
They entered a small clearing where a platform jutted from the hillside, peering out over the valley. Steve sprang up the three steps, throwing his arms wide. “Look at that view!”
Dylan’s mouth flooded with saliva and acid snaked into his throat.
Skipping across to her father, Emmy slid a hand into Steve’s. Talitha appeared on the other side, lean and leggy in her cycle pants and singlet. Steve wrapped strong brown arms around Talitha and Emmy, and even from the back they were picture perfect.
Dylan ducked behind a clump of tree ferns, releasing his breakfast onto the moss-covered ground.
“Hang on guys. What’s this about?” Dylan examined the faded notice. His dad and Talitha didn’t like to stop to read signs.
They had nearly reached the summit—just four hundred metres of rock scramble and they’d be there. Dylan was feeling much better, the wind here cooling his skin and drying his sweat-damp clothes. The vegemite sandwich he’d forced down ten minutes ago was finally kicking in.
“Come on, mate. You’re holding up the pack.” His father smiled, but his eyes were impatient.
“Hang on, Dad. I’m just reading.” Dylan studied the sign, taking his time. He was fifteen—he wasn’t that little kid, hurrying to tie his laces while his father frowned and huffed. The man could learn to wait. “It says … this mountain, Wollumbin, has spiritual meaning for the Bundjalung people. They ask visitors not to climb it.”
Stomping over, Steve read the board, folding his arms. “They tell us this now, when we’re almost at the top?”
Talitha and Emmy wandered closer. Dylan’s stepmum rubbed the corners of her mouth with finger and thumb. “There were a bunch of signs back at the carpark. We only looked at the map.” She tucked a hand into her husband’s pretzelled arms. “What do you think?”
Steve pulled away sharply. “What do I think? I say we go to the top. We didn’t come all this way for nothing!”
Talitha smoothed Emmy’s hair, pushing loose strands behind her daughter’s ears. “Hon, I was just asking. If you want to climb, let’s climb.”
His father stood taller. “We’re just walking. We’re not disturbing the land. Who’s coming?”
Emmy reached up. “I am!” She high-fived her father. Talitha nodded. “Sure, let’s do it.” Steve stretched out to her, too, and they slapped hands.
The three of them looked at Dylan.
“How about you, Squib?”
It had been a long time since his dad had used that nickname. He imagined the friendly sting of his father’s hand against his.
“I’ll head back down. See you at the car.” Dylan tugged the brim of his cap.
His dad and stepmum exchanged a look.
“Why don’t you take Emmy, get a head start. I’ll catch you soon.” Steve patted his wife’s shoulder. Talitha and Emmy began to pick their way up the rocks.
Dylan gathered his anger, ready to let fly. He had a right to go back. They were on sacred land, crashing around like dickheads. But when his father turned, the furrows in his cheeks looked deeper than before and he gazed off towards the coastline.
“You sick of me? Had enough for one day?”
Dylan exhaled slowly. “No, Dad. It’s not that.”
“I hope not. I thought we were getting on better.”
“We are. It’s fine, Dad.”
“I know it’s been hard for you. Especially lately.” Steve brushed at a streak of dirt on his knee. “I never wanted you to find out all that stuff.” His father straightened. “I really messed up. But we were wrong for each other, your mum and me.”
Dylan nodded, because when he thought about it now he agreed. His mum was great but she was quiet and reserved. His dad was the opposite, seeking people and action and attention. It seemed crazy they’d once been married, hard to even recall. His memories of them together were like strands of mist, disappearing when he reached for them.
“I know Dad. It’s okay. You’re both happier now.” He had a flash of his mum’s tired face the night before, opening bills in the tiny kitchen. He pushed the image away.
Emmy and Talitha were making good progress, clambering up with agile, sure steps.
“I’m a lucky man.” Steve’s voice was low and his eyes shone. Dylan felt that familiar tug, that same gaping love.
“You should go with them, Dad. I’ll see you back at the car.”
“Okay.” His dad moved away, more slowly than before. He veered away from the safety chains, instead wedging his feet into cracks, his broad hands finding ridges, moving steadily upwards.
Lightning brought the climbers down in swarms. Dylan watched from the covered picnic table as they rushed from the slopes—tight-faced fathers, worried mothers and frightened kids. Only a few older teenagers strolled languidly back. Finally, he spotted his father, stepmum and sister. The three of them were laughing, and Emmy was talking a mile a minute. Dylan grinned.
He met them at the Land Rover just as the rain began—fat, heavy drops that splashed his face and ran down his neck.
Inside the car it was warm and clammy. Emmy shrieked in excitement as rain pounded on metal and thunder echoed around. Dylan widened his eyes and his sister smirked, her small wet hands knotted tightly together. Every few seconds the gloom was sliced by searing white.
“Well, I guess we’re not having a picnic.” Talitha chuckled as she dried her face with a towel. They sat staring at the water-blurred windscreen.
“Oh well. We’ll get home early.” Steve pulled off his cap and tossed it on the back seat between Dylan and Emmy. “I might head to the gym, pump some weights.”
“Oh hon, again?” Talitha touched Steve’s leg. “Dylan’s here.”
Steve shrugged and pressed the ignition. “He can come too. He might like it.” The Land Rover roared into life and air conditioning blasted through the vents. Dylan shivered.
On the way home Emmy fell asleep in her booster seat, neck at a crazy angle. Dylan leaned across with her balled-up jumper and gently propped her head.
“Well, that’s Mount Warning done.” Steve gave Talitha’s ponytail a flick as he drove.
Wollumbin, Dylan corrected in his head.
“Yep. Another mountain in the bag.” His stepmother swivelled in her seat, peering around at her daughter. “Aw, look at Emmy. She’s had it!”
His father checked the back seat. “Not bad for six, though, going all that way.” His face was tender.
“How are you feeling?” Talitha held out a bag of fruit.
“Good, thanks.” Dylan accepted an apple and took a cracking bite. Emmy muttered and shifted in her sleep, then was quiet.
“Next family outing, we should all go bowling!” His stepmother polished an apple on her shirt. “Emmy missed you guys when we went last month. It wasn’t the same, just her and me.”
Dylan swallowed his mouthful, frowning. “What? When was this?”
His mind jumped back a few weeks. He recalled his father’s weary voice, cancelling the family day out, saying he had the flu.
In the rear vision mirror his father gazed at him.
“You know, last month. You had that jazz band competition.” His stepmother turned. “Your dad didn’t think Emmy would sit through it. Which is probably true. But he told me all about it. Said you were brilliant.”
Dylan’s vision wavered, and the sounds around him became muffled. His heartbeat slowed.
He stared at his father’s wide shoulders in that stupid, too-tight black shirt. He remembered long-ago rides on those shoulders—half thrilled, half panicked, gripping his dad’s forehead with fingers like claws. Raised high above the world, never quite sure he was safe, heart full to bursting.
Steve spoke loudly above the rumble of the road. “Well, my big kid needs time too. Father-son bonding. Right, Dylan?”
In the mirror his father watched and waited.