In The North

by: Tom Baragwanath

An engaging, anxiety inducing work of fiction reminding us all that one must proceed with caution when out of their element…

It was past dark when we came in to Ahipara, so we didn’t get a chance to familiarize ourselves with the place right away. A single road ran from the store to the campground past a long row of flaking beach houses, everything hushed under the murmur of the ocean. Beth had been busting for the last hour, and ran for the bathroom while Grace went to see about a spot for the tents. Mikey slipped a joint from his shirt pocket. A handful of rain clattered against the windscreen; I looked up into the sky, but couldn’t tell what the weather was doing.

In the office, Grace spoke to a round guy in a stretched singlet, his arms tight over his chest. We knew it was a long shot coming in without a booking, but Grace had a knack with his type. Through the glass I saw her smile and lean towards him, her elbow on the counter. His eyes softened, and, like water coming to a boil, a begrudging smile came across his face. I held my hand up to Mikey for the joint.

Footsteps sounded in the gravel beside us. Beth stepped into the truck, rubbing sanitizer into her palms.

“Jesus, guys.” She waved a hand through the smoke. “Again?”

“It’s the holidays, babe,” said Mikey.

“What if someone smells it?”

Mikey snorted. “No one will object this far north, trust me.”

He took the joint and licked his fingers to pinch it out. Grace came out of the office, holding the door for a guy in boardshorts who looked her up and down. She drew her cardigan around her shoulders and slid into the back seat.  

“They’re booked solid, but I convinced him to find us a spot.”

I rested a hand against her back as she relayed the directions to Mikey.

“This place is absolutely crawling.” Beth frowned at the rows of tents.

“It is January,” said Mikey.

“I know.” She folded her hands in her lap. “But where do they all come from?”  

We passed a laughing circle of guys in deck chairs passing around a bottle of Southern Comfort, reggae blasting from the open door of a nearby Ford. Through the steamed windows of the kitchen block I made out a row of gas hobs, plus some bent pots hung against the walls. It wasn’t the worst setup we’d seen. A teenage girl was breastfeeding a baby at the end of a long table, her hair hanging down over her shoulders. A second burst of rain fell against the windscreen. It was about to pour.

“There.” Grace pointed to a house at the edge of the campsite. “The driveway with the green ute.”

“Wait,” Mikey squinted. “Did he give us his own lawn?”

“I managed to get him to put his thinking cap on,” Grace said with a smile.

We unloaded the gear, running to beat the rain. There were yawning gaps in the weatherboard on the side of the house, some wide enough to fit a balled fist.

“You’re sure we’re not going to get swamped out here?” Beth stood with her arms folded across her chest, watching us pitch the tents.

“We’re elevated.” Grace dropped our bags to the lawn. “It’ll be fine.”

I ducked inside Mikey’s tent. “Pasta in twenty.”

“You don’t want a hand?”

“Nah, you guys chill here for a bit.”

He nodded, reading my face. I stepped with Grace across the lawn, my jandals flicking moisture up over my legs.

“Christ, that girl is hard work.” She let out a tired lungful of air.

I nodded. “They’re still getting used to each other, I think.”

“It’s been almost a year, Stu.”

“This is their first time camping together, though. That’s the real test.”

Grace shrugged and stepped through to the kitchen block. A guy with a greying ponytail looked up at us from his crossword, then grumbled and bent down with his pencil, steam lifting from his mug into his face.

Later, with full bellies and the rain coming down hard, we heard the telltale hissing of argument from Mikey and Beth’s tent. Grace smiled through the lamplight, breaking off from her book to roll her eyes at me. I switched the light off and slid my hand over her mouth so the others wouldn’t hear us. Outside, the sky finally cracked open, the rain falling loud enough for us to spend some time without being heard. I slid her leggings from her hips and bent my face down to her, her back arched into the sleeping bag. Afterwards, we were out in seconds, pulled down into sleep by the rain.

We woke inside an interconnected plateau of water; we had managed to avoid getting flooded, but only by a thin margin. Our walk to the bathroom took us past rows of muddy tents, chilly bins quivering atop the channels. In a deep spot by the hedgerows, a group of kids were throwing handfuls of mud at each other, splashing and diving as their parents went unfazed about their mornings. We showered and changed into the last of our clean clothes. On the way back we found Mikey in the cab of the truck, smoking what was left of last night’s joint.

“Morning, buddy.”

He looked up through bloodshot eyes. “Hey.” He took a puff from the roach, the stub glowing fiercely orange. I nodded Grace towards the tents and climbed into the driver’s seat.

“Sounds like you two had a few words last night.”

Mikey watched Grace move away down the path. “Sounds like you two had something else.” I felt a dopey expression come over my face. “Ah, good on you, bro. At least some of us are having a good time.” He held up the roach.

“Little early for me, thanks man.” Quiet static washed through the radio. “Get any sleep?”

“A little. Couldn’t get settled.” He took a last drag and stubbed out the roach. “I’m thinking bacon and eggs might be in order. A peace offering, you know.”

I opened the door. “Let me get my wallet.”

“I’ll sort it. You guys paid for the camping.”

“I should tell Grace.”

“Leave them to it, I reckon. Bit of girl talk might do some good.” He pointed behind us into the road. “Anyway, we won’t be long.”

I turned the engine over and reversed out. It was shaping up to be a warm day; the clouds were starting to blow through, revealing a calm stretch of blue.

“We’ll have to head in to Kaitaia,” Mikey yawned.

“Huh?”

“Beth won’t eat regular bacon. Sow crates.”

I swerved around a family coming out of the bathrooms snapping towels at each other, the children all squealing in delight. A skinny kid slapped the side of the truck as we came past, raising his middle finger in the side mirror.

“Is everything alright with you guys?”

“Yeah.” Mikey lifted a foot to the dash and stretched back in the seat. “Just her first time camping. She told me she’d stayed in huts before, but I think she must have meant those cabins in Fiji. Her dad took her and her sisters last year.”

“I had a hunch.”

Mikey picked at an ingrown toenail. “She’s really struggling with the whole communal shower thing. She wanted us to book bed and breakfasts for the last couple of days, even offered to pay for everything, but I’m not having it.”

“Can’t say I’m keen on the idea either, man. We’ve only budgeted for camping, and I don’t want anyone paying for me. Grace won’t either.”

“Everything will be booked anyway.” He turned to me. “You really won the lottery, man. Grace is so chilled out.”

I pulled us into the main road, looking past the dunes to the beach. The creek through the campground ran heavy, the soil tinting the waves brown. The smell of the salt came strong through the windows. I looked around for a good spot to set up for the afternoon; a few hours in the sun would be sure to lift everyone’s mood, especially after a plate of Mikey’s parmesan eggs.

A loud whistle pulled me from my thoughts. Across the road, a stocky guy in shorts and a black singlet leaned over a gate, lifting a hand in our direction.

“Youse off down the road?”

“Kaitaia.”

The guy nodded, as if accepting terms. “Giz a ride down the store then.”

Mikey shrugged his shoulders and reached into the back to shift some clothes out of the way. The guy approached the truck and climbed in behind me, his face holding a few days’ stubble, black saplings of hairs poking through his skin. The smell of stale sweat filled the cab.

“I’m Stu, this is Mikey.” He stared back at me in the rear view mirror, his door still wide open. “We good to go?”

“Hold your bloody horses.”

The guy leaned through the open door and whistled again. I jumped in surprise, which seemed to amuse him. From the side of the house came a woman carrying a baby, a boy no older than four or five clutching at her skirt. The three of them walked around the front of the truck and got in behind Mikey.

“Way you go now, boyo.”

I looked in the mirror, trying to get a better read on him. His eyes were red, and his breath carried a sour smell. He seemed happy to wait me out; I had the impression he had worked the same hustle before. The woman with the baby looked to be a good deal younger than him, maybe late twenties. She gave me a generous smile, as if apologizing on his behalf. I shifted into gear and pulled into the road behind a couple of cars from the campground freighted with bodies and steaming camping gear. The baby began to fuss; the woman bent down to settle it, whispering softly.

“You guys from around here?” Mikey spoke over his shoulder.

“Here and there.”

The guy held his eyes to mine in the rear view; I was starting to find it a little unnerving. Some guys on the beach had set up with surf rods, staring patiently past the waves.

Conditions would be good for snapper, I thought. In the distance I made out some rocks we could cast off. A pan full of fillets would be a treat for dinner, especially with the rosemary I’d seen growing down by the side of the house. I pointed it out to Mikey, and he turned in his seat.

“Any good fishing spots you could let us in on, mate?”

The guy lifted a hand and tapped me hard on the shoulder. “Left here.”

“Huh?” I pointed up ahead. “Store’s this way, right?”

“Take the left.”

His voice was strangely calm, like the stillness of a large body of water, something with its own laws of movement.

“We going far?” asked Mikey.

The guy offered no response. Mikey shrugged, and I made the left, turning us away from the beachfront. We came past a row of tidy, well-maintained holiday houses with names like “Sea Spray” and “Conch Cove.” Pale, zinc-cheeked kids ran around in rash vests on the lawns, their parents stretched out red and sweaty under umbrellas with beers and glasses of gin. Gradually the houses turned into shacks with gap-toothed fences, their gutters either rusted through or non-existent. A few places even had sheets of roofing iron missing, most likely from the storms a few months back.

“Right here,” the guy grunted.

We came to an intersection where the houses turned into farmland, the quarter acre sections becoming paddocks dotted with clumps of dry grass.

“This is it.”

I pulled onto the verge opposite a beaten-up weatherboard place, a long row of cars stacked out the driveway. The lawn was strewn with old whiteware, a pair of washing machines tilted against an empty fridge lying open to the sky. Inside the house, I caught the outline of someone moving behind drawn curtains. The guy climbed out and walked across the road, leaving the door hanging open. The woman stepped out of the truck with the baby, leaving the boy in the backseat.

“Hold up…” I began.

She was gone before I could finish my sentence. She gave me a wide smile, her bare feet brushing over the bitumen, her arms gently rocking the baby. The boy stared up open-mouthed from the backseat, seemingly unfazed. I pointed to the old Batman symbol on the front of his sweatshirt.

“Batman, eh?” I turned in my seat. “You like Batman, kiddo?”

He stared back without responding. I reached down into our bag of snacks and opened some peanuts for him. He slid his hand tentatively inside, dropping a few across his front in the process. 

“What do you reckon?” I turned to Mikey, my voice low.

“They’re going in there with a twenty, for sure.” He gave a wry smile. “Good to know where the local tinny house is, I guess.”

From the backseat came the sounds of rustling packaging; the boy had discovered the chips.

“Hungry there, big fella?” His hands grappled with a bag of Kettles. “Here, let me give you a hand.” I leaned over, and he drew the bag away from me, his eyes bright with alarm. “It’s alright, kiddo.” I opened my hands, miming peaceful intent, and eventually he handed me the bag. For a long while the truck was filled with the indistinct crackle from the radio, punctuated by the boy’s crunching and the occasional bleating sheep in the adjacent paddock. A dusty red pony ambled over to the fence to stare at us, resting his neck expertly against the barbed top wire.

I turned to the boy. “What are your mum and dad up to, eh?”

He looked at me for a long moment before opening his mouth and belching, loud and surprisingly deep. His eyes widened with surprise, and all three of us burst into laughter. Across the road, the guy in the singlet strode around the side of the house, the woman not far behind. He slid back into the truck, filling it with his smell.

“Alright pal, we good to go?” Mikey spoke over his shoulder. The woman climbed back in, nudging the boy over with a rustle of plastic.

“The store.”

“Anyone ever teach you the magic word, mate?”

The guy held his eyes to mine in the mirror, giving no indication he had heard Mikey. I pulled into the road. We weren’t far; a single turn at the end of the street would get us there, and then we could continue on to Kaitaia. The woman brought a handful of chips to her mouth.

“Tell me, mate. I’m curious,” Mikey leaned further into the backseat. “Does everyone in town share your friendly disposition?”

The guy stared straight ahead, remaining silent. After a tense couple of minutes we pulled into the store.

“Alright, peeps,” said Mikey. “It’s been a real pleasure.”

The woman climbed out and stepped down the side of the truck past the bait freezers to the store. The guy stayed where he was, the boy still next to him.

“Need some help with the door, mate?” Mikey leaned into the backseat.

“What’s the hurry, my brother?”

Mikey pointed to the main road. “We’re heading into Kaitaia.”

“Giz us a ride back. Don’t be a stink cunt.”

“What’s that?” A sharp edge came into Mikey’s voice.

“Bro,” I said. “It’s fine.”

“Best listen to your mate now, brother.”

“Get out of the truck.” Mikey swiveled further around, squaring up to him as best he could. “I’m not asking again.”

The guy stared back, waiting us out. I was about to open my mouth again when I heard the click of the door handle. He kept his eyes on mine as he climbed out with the boy, moving slowly and deliberately. Mikey reached across to pull the door closed, and we reversed out.

“We could’ve just dropped them off, man. It’s not that far.”

“Exactly. They can just walk it. It’s what, ten minutes?” He looked out the back of the truck. “Can you fucking believe that guy?”

The guy stood with his hands on the boy’s shoulders, his fingers curled in a collar

around his neck. I felt the deep brown of the boy’s eyes on mine.

“Those kids, man.”  

“Not your problem, bro.” Mikey fiddled with the radio, searching for another station. “Whole country’s full of situations like that. No one takes any responsibility.”

I turned and frowned. “You been listening to talkback or something?”

“It is what it is, Stu.” He leaned further back. “Look, a town like this, you’ve got to assume rent’s pretty low, right? They obviously have enough for the essentials.” A faint smile came over his face. I shifted gears, taking us up the incline out of town. We were silent for a long moment. “Listen, man,” he set a hand to my shoulder, “I don’t have the energy for any more drama. Let’s just get some bacon and eggs and get back so I can play nice with Beth.”

“Alright.”

“And please don’t mention any of this. She’s already sleeping with a corkscrew under her pillow as it is. Last night she tried padlocking the tent from the inside. She kept telling me she could hear footsteps on the lawn.”

We drove on, the tires humming against the road.

True to form, Mikey’s eggs left everyone in a much better mood. Some of the flood water had drained away by the time we came back, but the lawn still resembled a haphazard map of the world. After breakfast we walked over to the beach with our books and the fishing gear. Grace could see I had something on my mind. I waited until Mikey and Beth were both in the water before filling her in on the morning.

“Wait, what?” She sat up on her elbows, frowning. “And he made you drive all over town?”

“Yeah.” I yawned into my hand. “It was a little weird.”

She laughed and leaned forward, pushing her face into her towel. “Always one for understatement.” A line of seawater dripped from her nose; she rubbed it away with her palm. “And you’re not worried at all?”

“About what?”

“The guy’s just across the road, right?” She glanced behind us to the row of houses. “And he saw you come out of the campground?”

“Jeez, you’re starting to sound like Beth.” I kissed her neck, tasting the salt on her skin. “He’s harmless, just a local trying to hustle some honky kids from the city. Honestly, it’s nothing.”

Mikey and Beth stepped out from the surf, hands clasped together. Beth wore a yellow one-piece that showed off her curves. Grace followed my line of sight and punched me in the arm, hard.

“Ow, Jesus.” I lifted a hand to her belly, tickling her until she curled up in defense. “Listen, not a word, alright? Beth’s already freaked out just being up here.”

She made a zipping motion across her mouth, then rolled onto her back and picked up her book, her face covered in its shadow.

We struck it lucky with the fishing, and managed to bring back a couple of decent snapper. Mikey took care of the filleting while I fried the potatoes and mixed a salad. Our plates drew a few jealous glances from some of the other tables in the kitchen; Mikey had rubbed rosemary and garlic salt into the last of the panko crumbs, frying the fillets to a light brown. We made short work of a couple of bottles of Sauvignon Beth had brought from her dad’s cellar, then wandered back to the tents to play five hundred. Grace and I managed to pull ahead by a couple of games, mostly because Beth had drunk so much wine. We took a break while Grace went to the bathroom, and I went to our tent for whisky. I poured a couple of glasses of Laphroig and ducked back into their tent.

“What, boys only? What kind of patriarchy bullshit is that?” Beth smiled, struggling with the multiple syllables.  

“My sincere apologies,” I handed her my glass and went back for a replacement. I was scrambling around in my gear feeling happily drunk when I heard urgent steps squelching outside.

“Stu? Where are you?” I caught a tremor of panic in Grace’s whisper. She stuck her head through the fly, her eyes wide and serious.

“You need to come, now. Bring the lamp.”

“What’s going on, Gracie?”

She stepped across the lawn. “I was coming back, and I saw someone by the truck. A man.” She turned to me. “He must have come while I was in the bathroom.”

“By the truck?”

We walked past the house towards the gate, my feet a dark blur beneath me.

“He was crouching in the gravel. I think I startled him — he stood and walked off in the other direction, out past the sheds towards the road.”

“What did he look like?”

“I couldn’t see his face.” She stopped in the path. “He…he had a craft knife.”

“What?” A chill ran over my skin.

We stepped through the gate to the truck, our feet crunching in the gravel. I bent down and held the lamp to the tire. There were a series of deep slashes in the rubber; someone had cut right the way through to the inner tube, slicing a palm-sized diamond out of the black surface.

“It’s over here, too.” Grace called out from the passenger’s side. It was the same thing; all four tires had been slashed.

“Mikey is going to flip out.” I stood with my hands at my hips, staring around us into the dark. “Can you remember anything else?”

“I don’t know. It all happened so fast.”

“A Māori guy, about medium height, dark hair? Wearing a black singlet?”

“Not the singlet, but yep, he had dark hair.” She stood next to me. “Probably about medium height, I guess, pretty solid looking. He moved so calmly, like he wasn’t the slightest bit worried about being seen.”

I thought of the look the guy had given us as we drove away from the store, and heard again the calm, even sound of his voice. He spoke like a permanent feature of the landscape, something beyond questioning, especially by kids driving up from the city with sixty-dollar bottles of Sauvignon from their father’s cellar.

“Do you think it was him?” asked Grace. “The guy from earlier?”

“See if you can get Mikey to come without Beth. Tell him I need a hand lifting something.”

I stood in the gravel, looking around for any other signs as to what had happened. The adrenaline had sharpened me up, though I still felt a little blurry from the wine. A child’s cry sounded beyond the hedges, followed by a woman’s low shushing. Mikey strode down the side of the house, with Grace close behind.

“Here,” I bent down with the lamp. Mikey held his hand to the tire, tracing the slashes with his fingers and breathing heavily.

“Fucking scum. I just paid for these!” He slammed his fist against the wheel, wincing with the impact. I brought a hand to his shoulder.  

“We can’t be sure it was him, Mikey.”

“For fuck’s sake, man, who else would it be?” He looked to Grace, his hands in fists at his sides. “Call the cops. Tell them we’re heading across the road.”

“Whoa, hold up…”

“Come on.” He strode off past the kitchen block. I handed Grace the lamp and ran after him.

“Calm down, bro.” I grabbed him by the shoulder. “Let’s just wait.”

“Fuck that.” He shrugged me off, the words hissing from his mouth. “You were the one who wanted to give them a ride, Stu. And now look what’s happened.”

A pair of kids stared out at us from a parked car, a tent flap tied to the open door.

“You remember which house he came out of?”

“Well, yeah, but…shit man, why don’t we just wait?”

“He’ll be long gone by then.”

Mikey broke into a run, his jandals flapping in the gravel. Inside the office, the manager lifted his head and stared out at us through the porch lights. We came through the main gate onto the road, the surf echoing through the dark. Dim yellow cones from the streetlights pointed the way down to the store.

“This place, right?”

“The next one.” I grabbed his shoulder. “Listen, just take it easy.”

He threw me off again and stepped up to the gate. Everything was hushed and quiet; light from a television flickered against the drawn curtains. Mikey went to the front door, rapping his fist hard against the frame. Through the curtains I saw someone rising from a chair. The door swung open; it was the young boy from earlier, staring at us with the same blank expression. Mikey bent down to him.

“Where’s your dad?” Mikey’s voice came out as a rough bark.

“Easy, bro.” I stepped alongside him. “Hey, big fella. Remember us?” I came closer to let him see me. “Is anyone else home?”

The boy’s eyes shone dark against the night outside, the Batman symbol reflecting bright in the lamplight. Quiet steps sounded behind him in the hallway, and the woman appeared wearing the same grin. The smell of weed wafted from the hall.

“Listen, your…the guy you were with earlier,” Mikey stepped closer to her. “Where is he right now?” She held her beatific expression, her eyes glazed over. “Hey! Are you listening?”

Footsteps scuffed on the lawn behind us, quiet. We turned to see the guy standing at the edge of the path, now in a dark green fleece. A length of orange plastic protruded from one hand. He stared at us calmly, his eyes like a pair of closed doors. Mikey took a step forward.

“Listen, you fucking…”

The guy flicked a silver tip from the orange plastic. “You need to think about where you are, my brother.” He looked calm, as if he were performing a routine task, something he’d done plenty of times before. “You and your mate here need to think about what youse are up to, up here on your holidays.”

I held an arm to Mikey. “Come on, man.”

“You slashed my fucking tires.”

The guy stared back, unresponsive.

“Mikey,” I gripped him around the shoulder. “Let’s go.”

“You should listen to your mate.” The guy held a finger up to his temple. “He’s got all the choice ideas.” He took a step towards us, looking like he might spring forward. I pulled at Mikey, dragging him back towards the gate.

“We’re coming back,” Mikey called out as he stepped backwards, tripping over his jandals. The guy stood still, the blade jutting from his hand, looking like he was exactly where the world intended him to be, as much a feature of the environment as the dry grass under his feet or the surf whispering through the dark.

The police made it in surprisingly good time from Kaitaia, especially considering the time of year. Two constables came to inspect the truck and take our statements, an efficient younger woman and an older potbellied guy. They hardly batted an eyelid at our description of the impromptu taxi ride; I had the impression they had heard it all before. When they were done with us they went across the road. To our surprise, the guy in the fleece came right out of the house to meet them, walking across with them to the campground office.

“No fear at all.” Mikey shook his head, incredulous. The four of us sat on the deck, our faces lit yellow by the porch lights. I held my arms around Grace. A small crowd had gathered at the sight of the police; kids leaned against parked cars whispering to each other, and a couple of guys stood watching over cans of beer.

The guy spoke to the officers for a long time, his arms crossed over his chest. He didn’t seem rattled in the slightest. After a while he lifted an arm towards the office, and the pot-bellied constable went in to speak to the manager.

“What are they doing, Mikey?” Beth stood up from the deck, still unsteady from the wine.

“How would I know?”

I held a hand to his shoulder, trying to settle him down. Beth’s eyes narrowed into fuming slits. The manager came outside and joined the two constables, glancing in our direction and pulling his singlet down across his belly. The young constable came over to us.

“Alright, now.” She closed her notebook. “Thanks for waiting.”

“Did he confess?” Mikey stared hopefully into her face. “Did you pat him down for the craft knife? You’ll be able to match it to the tires for sure. He might have even left prints.”

The constable moved her eyes around our group. “The gentleman across the road has an alibi for the evening.”

“An alibi?” Grace squinted through the porch lights.

“The campground manager has confirmed that he was present in his office between seven and ten-thirty, sitting with him while he manned the desk.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Mikey threw his hands up. “He’s covering for him! Surely you can see that?”

“I’ll ask you to lower your voice, mate.” The constable set a hand against her hip. “Their statements have been confirmed by another two guests here at the campground. They were in and out of the office on multiple occasions during that time, and both saw him in there.”

The manager walked back over the gravel and into the office, the faint trace of a smile on his face.

“Officer, I must ask you to give this some more consideration.” I spoke as calmly as I could. “Grace saw the guy, plus he had a knife when we went over.”

The constable turned to Grace. “Well, Ms. Welshing, in your account you mentioned you didn’t get a good look at the man’s face. You said you saw someone of Māori or Polynesian descent with dark hair. Medium height, stocky build, wearing jandals and shorts. Correct?”

“Ye…yes, that’s it.” Grace stared into the gravel. “That’s what I saw.”

“And you can’t be positive it was him?”

Grace crossed her arms and leaned past the constable. “It was dark. We were way down the end, and I didn’t have a torch on me.”

Beth spoke up. “Surely with everything earlier in the day you can put two and two together?”

“The other accounts have been quite specific about him being in the office during the entire time period.”

“Jesus Christ!” Mikey raised his arms, incredulous. “So you can’t do anything? That’s what you’re telling us?”

“Mr. Thompson, I will not ask you again to lower your voice.” She lifted a hand to her baton, a hard look in her eyes. Behind her, the guy in the fleece shook hands with the other officer and turned back across the road, moving with slow confidence.

“We’ll log it as property damage, and will file a report for insurance purposes.”

“You’re not going to follow up on his threatening behavior?” Beth pointed past the constable, her voice breaking. Grace lifted a hand to her shoulder.

“Beth, just calm…”

“No! That guy is a fucking menace!” Beth’s voice broke into a scream. The pot-bellied officer turned to us with a bemused smile. “We’re not safe! Not here, not around these…these people! You’ve got to do something!”

The guys with beers shook their heads, and a few loud snickers lifted from the gathered kids. After a long pause the younger constable turned to Mikey.

“There’s a garage just past the store. They’ll be open in the morning.”

Mikey stared at the ground. “They’re special tires, thick tread. They’ll have to be ordered in.”

“Well, we could arrange to have someone take you in to Kaitaia tomorrow, but we’re pretty flat out with the holidays, so I’m not sure when that’ll be.” She pulled a card from her pocket. “This is the number for the police station. You can call if anything else comes up.” She turned to go.

“Wait, where are we supposed to sleep?” Beth reached a hand out and grabbed her by the arm. “We can’t stay here!”

The constable looked down, waiting for her to let go. “Come with us if you need. Most of the accommodation will be closed for the night, but there’s one hotel with a night desk.”

“That’s fine, thanks,” Mikey lifted a hand to Beth’s shoulder. “We’re okay here. We can sleep in the truck.”

Beth jerked away from him, her eyes wide and furious. “Get our things. We’re going with them.” Mikey stared back in confusion. “Get the fucking gear, Mikey!”

He lifted his palms in acquiescence, then turned and headed towards the truck. The guys holding beers watched him go, laughing between themselves.

“Thanks for your help, officer.” I took Grace’s arm, feeling the manager’s eyes on us as we came past the office.

“He’ll need a hand with their gear.” She sounded washed out.

“You’re all good to stay?”

“I don’t see why not.” She gave a faint smile. “He’s not going to risk anything now, right? Everyone would know it was him.”

I lifted a hand to her waist. The scrape of our footsteps echoed through the warm dark, mixing with the voices from the tents. The gaggle of kids followed behind us, laughing ahead with shining eyes. The movements of their limbs, the way they picked their steps; every aspect of their bodies announced their dominion. The rain falling through the night; the creek running muddy into the surf; the rows of tents snaking between parked cars: all of this was theirs. They stepped easily over the shards of gravel, arranging themselves in accordance with the laws and motion of Ahipara.

 

Tom Baragwanath is a writer originally from Wellington, New Zealand, currently living in Paris. His fiction has been featured in Takahe, Headland, The Eunoia Review, and elsewhere. 

 

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