This piece is part of our ongoing series ‘Short Story of the Month‘. Every month, the Writer’s Edit team selects their favourite submission and provides detailed feedback to the author.
Stay tuned for an interview with Cassie Hamer, discussing her inspirations and literary influences.
Tim’s War by Cassie Hamer
The day after the Russians shot 269 people out of the sky, Tim took a can of baked beans and put it in his cave.
The next day, when Ronald Regan called it a ‘massacre’ and a ‘crime against humanity’, Tim took a second tin of baked beans and his dad’s torch. Back-up batteries would be needed. The torch was always flat.
After a month, he had 30 tins, the torch, some matches and a blanket. It wasn’t enough, but it was a start. Now, when he left his house in the bruised dawn light, he set his watch to timer. It took him ten minutes to scramble down the ravine, his knees scraping on rocks and scratching against the shrubs. Gasping so badly. Lungs breaking ribs apart.
Ten minutes to get to the cave.
Not fast enough. When the Russians came, there wouldn’t be much warning.
He’d walk back slowly. Back to the smell of his Dad’s aftershave and the loosely folded newspaper on the kitchen bench. During the week, they didn’t see each other much. City jobs were like that. But Dad left that paper out like a hanging comma and, more often than not, Tim read a bit of it over his cornflakes while his mum showered. She worked full-time now that he was in high school. Most mornings he heard her singing in the bathroom, which he blocked out by focussing on the newsprint.
It said the people on that Korean airplane were alive when it hit the water. Twelve minutes it took, from when it was first hit by the missile to when it crashed. Twelve minutes. Gasping. Lungs crushing through ribs. That’s how those poor people would have felt, Tim thought, as milk dribbled down his chin.
The next month, the rain came and the dry sclerophyll forest that bordered Tim’s backyard wasn’t dry any more. It smelled of menthol and dank muck and the ravine was a mud slide. The afternoon the rain stopped, Tim picked out a tin of spaghetti. By the time he got to the ravine, the sun was boring into his eyes. Wouldn’t be long before it was dark. Might have to break the ten minute barrier to get there and back in time. He slid down, mostly on his bum. Mum wouldn’t ask about the mud ‘cause he was always filthy from footy training. It was quiet. Just him panting. The forest rustling. The sun making its silent journey.
At the entrance to the cave, he stopped. Waited to let his eyes adjust. Took a couple of steps. Stopped again. Something else was breathing. Tim’s heart boomed into his collarbones.
‘Hello? Is anyone there?’
‘Faaaaark. Off.’ The voice was low and guttural. Tim dropped the spaghetti and took off. At the back steps to the house, he dry retched and checked his watch. Nine minutes. A personal best.
That night he dreamed of a dog, snarling at him through darkness, invisible except for the whites of its eyes. In Tim’s hand, there was a cane, and he beat the dog until it whimpered.
High school smelled something shocking – Mr Sheen and sweaty footy socks. Why did it stink so bad here when St Marks smelled like a pie warmer, Tim thought idly as his maths teacher stalked up and down the classroom. Mr Akers was trying to describe the difference between mean, median and mode. To Tim, it all sounded like ‘middle’. He tuned out and started scribbling a note for Cleary, asking him to come over after school. He hadn’t shown the cave to anyone yet. Didn’t know them well enough. But he sure as hell didn’t want to confront whoever was in there on his own again.
Akers burped over him and the smell of stale coffee settled on Tim’s shoulders.
‘Making social arrangements are we, Rogers?’ He snatched the note from the desk and Tim’s stomach kicked up like a monster wave, about to break. Hollow and gnawing. ‘You know the way, don’t you Rogers?’ He handed Tim a discipline note for the headmaster and pointed to the door.
Until high school, no one had ever called him by his surname. Now, it was his only name. As he passed each classroom, he allowed himself a brief glance through the little windows on each door. Boys. Heads down. Bowed. Cowed. Teachers droning away. He clenched and unclenched his fingers, digging his nails hard into the white flesh of his palms. If he hurt himself now, it might hurt less later. Everyone said the second stroke was the worst. Having paper in your undies helped but if you got found out you’d cop an extra strike or two.
Tim checked his watch. Twenty minutes until recess.
At least the toilets would be empty so he could cry afterwards, in peace.
On the afternoon of the caning, he went back to the cave. The trip was slow. His arse was too sore for sliding on. He had to be sure of each footfall. But caring took time, and he wasn’t in a real hurry anyway. After the note debacle, he’d decided not to ask anyone to come visit the cave and he didn’t really get a chance anyway. No one really talked to him after maths. They knew he’d cried. The bloodshot eyes.
At the mouth to the darkness Tim stopped, flicked on the torch and waved it into the nothingness. The light caught on something white. Eyeballs.
‘Kid, I thought I told you to fuck off.’ Hands over eyes. The light too bright.
‘This is my cave.’
‘Kid, it’s fucken not your cave.’
‘It’s my cave.’
‘You fuck off now or I’ll do you.’ The tangle of clothes started to move and Tim ran. ‘You forgot the tin opener, ya dickhead.’ The words faded behind him, like people, falling from an aeroplane.
He said his name was Fred but Tim wasn’t sure because he paused before he said it, like he was thinking up a lie.
‘What’s the food for, kid?’
‘It’s for when the Russians come.’
‘In case there’s a war.’
‘Kid, there’s already a fucking war.’
Fred knew a lot about stuff but when Tim asked him about the South Korean airliner and whether he thought the Russians shot it down on purpose, he said he didn’t know anything about it.
‘And anyway, who gives a shit what I think. Hmph.’ He had this way of finishing every sentence with a little grunt.
Now, whenever he visited the cave, Tim always took the newspaper but he didn’t know if Fred read it or used it as kindling for the fire. Mostly, he went in the morning. Got up. Got his wet sheets and pyjama pants into the washing machine before his mum could notice and scooted down to the cave. Fred knew a lot about plants and bugs – the ones you could eat and the ones that were poisonous and his eyes would go shiny as marbles when he talked about that stuff. Tim wanted to say thanks for everything Fred was teaching him, so one day he took down a bottle of sherry he’d found hidden up the back of the pantry. The bottle had a layer of dust so he didn’t think his mum would miss it.
But Fred didn’t want it.
‘Gettin’ dry, brother.’ He said, clasping and unclasping his hands. ‘Grog’ll killya, brother.’
Tim took the sherry back but asked if Fred wanted to have a shower sometime when his folks were out.
‘Nah, brother. This brown don’t wash off. Hmph.’
Because of all the rain, the forest started blooming. Lots of little purple and yellow flowers. Everywhere. Even the creek had water, and occasionally, Tim wore his board shorts and had a quick dip while Fred hunted round in the bush for more tucker. He was getting a bit sick of the tins and Tim’s mum seemed to be wising up to the fact that too many were disappearing.
In October, the Americans invaded Grenada and Tim had to use his atlas to find the tiny island. When he discovered it was no more than a speck in the ocean – one hundredth the size of Tasmania – he felt a little better. But Fred was getting antsy. He thought someone was after him, watching him in the bush, and that he’d have to move on.
‘You haven’t told anyone, have you kid. Hmph?’ With that, he’d grabbed Tim around the throat. Not hard. But hard enough to make Tim’s legs feel a bit weird. Just the shock of it.
Not you too, he thought.
Later, he checked his neck in the mirror. No marks. But he didn’t see Fred the next day. Or the day after that.
On November 2, the Soviets put their nuclear forces on high alert. The Americans were doing some kind of war game exercise but the Russians thought it might be for real. Tim scrambled down the ravine to tell Fred.
At the cave’s entrance, he stopped. No breathing. It had been so long since Tim had been there on his own, he’d forgotten the hushing noise the cave made. The slow drip of water that you could never see, only hear. He darted the torch light across the darkness. Fred’s gear was gone, along with all the tins.
That night, as he lay in bed, he thought about where Fred would be lying and realised he’d never asked about his family.