Chapter 1

 

“SUN, surf, and chicks. Come on, man, you know you’ve gotta come with me.” His mate thumped the back of Matthew’s shoulder and gave him an incredulous look. Matthew had been through this many times in all the years he’d known Craig. His friend would get an idea in his head and nothing would shift it. Rather than answering, he shrugged and scanned the waves that broke whitecapped at the shoreline just to slide back with the retreating tide. He knew Craig wouldn’t give in that easily and waited for the next onslaught. Matthew didn’t have long to wait.

“Okay, consider it this way.” Craig grabbed a drink from their cooler and flopped down next to him on the towel. “Consider it a rite of passage that we all have to do before we start college. It’s a road trip. You know, everyone’s gotta do a road trip at least once in their life. Especially if it’s a road less taken.” Craig raised an eyebrow because that was a direct dig at his friend’s pattern of always taking the safe option.

“A road trip, huh?” Matthew mused, totally ignoring the well-worn jibe.

“Yep.” Craig grinned against the lip of the bottle and took a big gulp before passing it over. “Hit the road, do what we want with no rules and no oldies trying to tell us what to do. Come on, man, we’re legally adults and have never been farther than Melbourne. You can’t pass that up. Seriously, you can’t.”

It was obvious that Craig was warming to the idea, so Matthew simply leaned back on his elbows and listened.

“I mean, do you wanna do the typical schoolies' thing and fly up to Queensland? Spend your time getting wasted on cheap booze at clubs with those losers from school, or hit the beaches all the way up the coast?”

“Nah, much rather follow the surf in your old banger of a car all the way to Queensland, so we can drink cheap booze and get wasted with all the other losers.”

“Fuck off, you jerk,” came the good natured retort, and Craig slapped the warm skin of Matthew’s belly. “I just wanna go somewhere I don’t have to wear a wetsuit and go home at the end of the day. It doesn’t have to be all the way to Queensland. Maybe we can just go as far as Byron? Byron sounds good, huh? Just away from here. Anywhere but here, okay?”

Matthew nodded. He didn’t have the hard time at home that Craig suffered, but getting away still sounded good. “What about heading up to the Territory? I know someone who flew up there and….”

“And who’s gonna pay for that? You found a stash of money I don’t know about, Kellett?” Craig rolled his eyes and nudged Matthew’s battered old surfboard with an outstretched foot to emphasize his point.

Money was always an issue and might have been one of the reasons they spent so much time at the beach rather than following the poser club scene like so many of their classmates. Neither of them saw much money growing up. All through school it was hand-me-down uniforms from friends of the family and detentions for not wearing the right footwear when the soles came away from their shoes and the gaffer tape stolen from the electrical teacher stopped holding it together. Matthew Kellett and Craig Jefferies were a team, and when you saw one you knew the other wasn’t far away.

“Not me,” Matthew muttered, then looked up at the mate he’d shared all those detentions with. He smiled. “Okay let’s do it, but you’ve got to give me time to square it with the old man first. I think he’d planned for me to get a job over the summer.”

Craig let out a loud whoop and stood up. “Tell him his son needs to get away from all the girls who know him and meet one willing to make him a man.”

“What about your old man?”

“Gonna be gone for the summer. He’s got a long-haul drive out west, then got something lined up driving at the mines. With any luck he’ll stay there. Anyway, I think I’ve talked Kelly into going with us, and who knows, she might know someone dumb enough to keep you warm at night in that old tent of yours.”

“Yeah, great,” Matthew agreed, but Craig had already started to jog back to the water and didn’t notice that the smile had slipped from his friend’s face.

“Great,” Matthew repeated under his breath as he watched Craig turn and grin when the first waves washed against his legs. Sun-bleached, shoulder-length hair that looked like it had never even seen a comb, never mind touched one, skin peeling off the top of his shoulders to reveal a new crop of freckles on tanned skin, and a smudge of white zinc cream on his nose. Matthew noticed all that, plus the light dusting of sand stuck to the remnants of sunscreen on his lean but well-muscled back before it was washed off in the surf. He always noticed what he knew he shouldn’t, and that was the problem. Matthew was only interested in two of the “sun, surf, and chicks.”

While Craig paddled out to catch one of the small choppy waves, Matthew pushed his toes through the warm sand and muttered, “Great, I get to spend my rite of passage listening to Craig and Kelly fucking in the next tent.”

 

 

THE Kellett family home was a small house in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, close to the beach at the bottom of the peninsula, but definitely on the wrong side of the freeway. Three bedrooms, brick veneer, with a barbeque out back and a small vegetable patch that had been started with good intentions but grew more weeds than tomatoes. The Kellett family consisted of three members: Matthew, his dad Tom, and Monty.

Matthew stacked his board against the wall of the garage and unlatched the gate to the backyard where an overenthusiastic old black Labrador quickly met him. “Hey Monty, you want some dinner?” he asked the dog, whose wagging tail thumped noisily against the fence. “Come on then, where’s your bowl? Grab your bowl.” He clapped his hands and grinned at the old dog who, even with age-worn teeth, somehow managed to grin back. Ignoring the twinge of arthritic hips, Monty bounded over to his bowl and pushed it with his nose. He looked up, expectation bright in his cloudy eyes, and barked happily when Matthew picked it up. It was a game they’d played since they were both pups.

Once Monty was preoccupied gobbling down his water-softened kibble, Matthew pulled open the screen door and walked into the quiet house. Despite the lack of air conditioning, the living room remained relatively cool; the curtains tightly closed that morning had managed to keep out the worst of the summer heat. He kicked off his sneakers and turned on the TV, more to kill the stifling silence than anything else.

Matthew sat like that for nearly twenty minutes before realizing he hadn’t actually seen any of the game show now nearing its closing waves and credits. With a weary sigh, he flicked around a few channels before admitting that his thoughts were completely centered on his road trip or, more to the point, how to ask his father. It wasn’t that his dad wouldn’t want Matthew to enjoy his summer break, but on the rare occasions when they talked, Tom Kellett made it clear that life was a struggle and responsibilities had to be met. It always made Matthew think of that old politician he’d studied in Civics who’d declared to the poor that “life wasn’t meant to be easy” and conveniently forgot the last part of the quote: “Life wasn't meant to be easy, my child, but take courage: it can be delightful!

Matthew’s gaze wandered around the room, and he saw things prompting small memories of a time when his dad actually seemed to enjoy life. Taking pride of place on the mantelpiece was the framed photograph of a young couple watching their small son almost being devoured by an overexcited puppy. The decorated white aluminum tree in the background signaled it was a long-past Christmas. The boy had dark hair and olive skin like his mother, but already looked like the man holding her hand and waiting uncomfortably for the camera timer to click. Next to the picture was a pair of china ornaments, two little mice all dressed up as if they were going to a ball. They seemed out of place in the house of masculine simplicity, but when so many things had been packed up in cardboard boxes and stacked in the back of the garage, his dad had made sure they stayed next to the picture. Matthew knew he could have asked his dad anything if his mum was still alive.

A quick glance at the clock told Matthew that he still had a few more hours to worry until it was time to wake his dad for night shift in the plastics factory. With a heavy sigh, he hauled himself to his feet, grabbed an old notebook from his abandoned school bag, and flopped back down in the chair.

On the top of the page, he wrote the heading: “Reasons why I need to go on the road trip.” Matthew looked at what he’d written and underlined need.

“Okay, Monty,” he said while scribbling down his first argument. “How does this sound? It will be my last chance before I go to college. ” Matthew frowned. He scored out the latter part of the sentence and wrote, “Last chance before I start work if I don’t get into college.”

Your last chance for what, Matty? His father’s words were clear in his head, and he pulled a face of despair. “I don’t fucking know,” Matthew groaned and absently reached down to scratch a concerned ear when he felt a cold snout push against his leg.

He stared at the notebook, hoping the answer would suddenly appear to him because, if the truth be known, Matthew didn’t actually know what he wanted from life other than to drift through until a road miraculously unfolded in front of him.

With a shake of his head, Matthew added: “See some of the country, or at least as much as we can until we run out of petrol money.”

He sat and tapped the pencil on the pad, watching the dots of gray graphite grow on the nearly empty page. Matthew rolled his eyes and added exactly what Craig would say: “My rite of passage and a chance to meet girls.” He looked at the last sentence and wondered if that would sway his dad’s thinking.

“Do you think he’ll buy that, Mont?”

When the pink tongue lolled out in a happy grin, Matthew had to smile back. “Ever the optimist, isn’t that right, you silly old dog? I don’t think I have a hope in Hell.” But the old Lab only understood that someone he loved was talking to him, and that was all he needed to make his tail drum out a tattoo on the floor.

By the time ten o’clock rolled around, Matthew had what looked to be a long list with many items scribbled out, making it, in actuality, quite a short list, but he hoped his dad would get the essence of his pitch and understand just how much he needed to do this.

He hoped, but doubted.