It was the hottest Christmas Day on record. A north wind tore through the town, whipping up clouds of red dust that swirled around the children’s heads and fell into their eyes. Long-suffering livestock stood in crackling, brown paddocks and an oppressive silence hung all around as birds and insects sheltered under the eaves from the baking sun.
Christmas never went well in Meninderree but this year the day was proving particularly difficult with the tragedy of the past week still hanging in people’s hearts. Nightfall came as a welcome relief. It took the edge off the heat and the temper of the men and signalled the end of strained festivities everywhere.
Bill, drunk, sat in his usual spot on the back verandah. He peered out into the gloom as strong gusts of wind pushed the hills hoist around and around and slammed the door of the chook shed repeatedly against its rotting wooden frame. The face of Jim Curren popped into his mind as it had done throughout the day. Bill wondered if they would have been sitting together on his verandah right now if things had gone differently; old friends silently sharing a coldie in the same way they had shared the pain and confusion of so many days.
Over the years, the two men had watched their small, outback town change beyond recognition. As the drought conditions persisted, the resilience of the people gradually gave way to a slow simmering anger that grew as their hope ebbed away. BIll had been gripped early on, in only the second or third year, and it was to his eternal shame that he had not put up more of a fight as he had seen other men try to do. But in the end, Bill had been luckier than most. No one believed his wife and child had suddenly left him one night but the police could never prove anything. So the only legacy of his rage was a nickname; Double Dose Billy, on account of the most persistent rumours about poisoning.
Jim Curren had not been so fortunate. Convinced it was his failings that had led to the loss of the family farm, he had blasted away three generations, including himself, in less than five minutes. A candlelight vigil was held at the farm on Christmas Eve but it was a hollow affair. The local population were outnumbered by the media who crawled hungrily over the irresistible drama of Meninderee’s fourth family annihilation in a decade.
Stupefied and alone on the verandah, Bill fell further and further into his slow, dark thoughts. He was on the edge of consciousness when something flashed in the gloom and pulled him back to full awareness. He sat up. There it was again. A white flash in the doorway of the chook shed. Bang, the shed door slammed shut and it was gone. Then swinging back open violently in the wind, the doorway revealed the momentary image and Bill’s heart stood still.
White cotton, white skin, limp, blonde hair. He had glimpsed it before, several times over the past few days. First, down at the water hole with Jim, the last time they had met and he had thought about saying something but swallowed his words down with a beer instead. Then again, suddenly on the roadside as he drove back from the vigil. The child was unmistakable. His own bright, shining girl. The most enduring light he had ever known. A light he had extinguished out of necessity. Her mother too. Both delivered from their eternal disappointment at the way the family had turned out and Bill’s inability to change anything.
Bang! The shed door slammed shut and she was gone. Despite the persistence of the wind, the door stayed closed this time. Bill knew he had to move. He rose shakily from his seat, uncertain whether the tremor in his hands was caused by alcohol or fear. He turned to enter the house and find his car keys. As quickly as he could. Hurry, hurry. Then he heard the slow squeak of the shed door hinge behind him and froze, his legs refusing to move any further. The shed was opening again and Bill could not fight the urge to turn around and face what it revealed.
White innocence, white vengeance, stood in the doorway. Unsmiling, unforgiving, she pointed to the edge of the verandah where a large metal trunk sat, padlocked and forgotten for all these years. Terrified, Bill felt his head shake. I don’t have the key. Believe me, I’ve thought about it many times, but I don’t have the key. I threw it away.
Bang. Flash. White. Bone hard white. Screaming white. Empty eyes. Right up on him. White knuckled fear, gripping his shoulders, pushing him down. Bill’s heart stopped. Dead. Cold. Finally, some relief from the heat.