By the time Otto got the dinghy off the beach, stowed the gear, and flipped the dinghy upside down, his stomach was rumbling. He put on his pack and followed the four-wheel drive track up the hill. Near the top of the hill he veered off the track, trudging over to the marker rock. Usually he touched it with his palm but this time he used his fingertips; five tiny pools of rock warmth. He looked back, across the sea to the island. Late afternoon sun had turned the island’s trees into slashes of green gold. The sea was darker now, but still playing the game – unruffled – sticking to the forecast.
Otto went through the gate and crossed the road. Dust coated his shoes. It had been ages since rain. The road curved around and down the hill, before climbing to the farm gate. The freshly painted red flag on the side of the microwave letterbox shone in the distance. The last time Dad had been home he’d brought the old microwave off the fishing trawler. One hundred per cent waterproof. Perfect for a letterbox. He propped it up on the macrocarpa stump at the front gate. He got Rilke to practise reaching through the mail ute window to hit the open button. Dad trimmed the stump with the chainsaw until it was the exact right height. He did a new red flag too because the old one had been squeaky for ages. Rilke was stoked. So was Mum. No soggy mail the next time it actually rained.
Otto climbed the next fence. All he could think about was food. He skirted around a big thistle and jumped the next fence. As he hit the ground his stomach growled. He was bottom-of-the-pit hungry, feet-dragging hungry.
He passed the microwave, went through the front gate, and over the cattlestop. Five alpacas were standing near the fence. The youngsters always wanted to play but Otto gave them a quick pat and kept going.
Jed was lying on the back step, like a big white rug, Soldier curled up asleep across his paws. Jed looked half-asleep but if a stranger, human or animal, came near the borders he’d be up in an instant. Now he slowly pushed his forelegs up, carefully rolling Soldier off his paws. Soldier gave a lazy meow and curled up again in the patch of sun by Jed’s tail.
Jed greeted Otto, sniffing his hands and feet. Otto crouched down and patted him, running strokes across his head and shoulders. He wanted to curl up in Cassie’s spot, where the wood was worn smooth, next to Jed, but his stomach kept him moving, through the back door, down the hall and into the living room. By the window was the telescope, pointed at the marker rock. On the side table was a piece of paper which looked like it had been screwed up and flattened out over and over again. His note.
The house was quiet. It was Cassie’s bath-time. At Figs’ place when his four-year-old brother had a bath it was carnage; laughing, screaming, yelling – the works. Here, Otto could hear the hum of the fridge in the kitchen. The stairs creaked. Mum came down carrying Cassie wrapped in a towel. Their faces were expressionless. They looked so alike. But Mum’s eyes narrowed; her forehead creased then smoothed out. She was working at giving nothing away. Cassie wasn’t.
‘Hi,’ said Mum.
‘Hi,’ said Otto.
‘One hundred and forty three,’ said Cassie, with a faint smile, her eyes scanning the room.
‘Hi Cass,’ said Otto.
It was always that way with 143. With Dad home Cassie’s line was 144 and she didn’t look around but straight at Otto, grinning. Certain.
‘It was irresponsible Otto,’ said Mum. The wrinkles on her forehead were beginning to cave in.
‘I was okay.’
‘You could have fallen down the cliff,’ said Mum. ‘I would never have known.’
So it was definitely a cliff, not a hill. Best not to mention the mangled note.
‘One hundred and forty three,’ said Cassie again, firmly. Otto was the last item counted safe on a long list of chickens, goats, sheep, alpacas, humans and pets. Last week she added two ducks to her list and when they disappeared off the pond for a day she had Jed all over the property looking for them.
Otto kept his hands out of sight. He gave Mum his best remorseful look. Remorseful was one of Miss Walker’s useful words. He, Figs and Bruce had practised looking it in the boys’ toilets.
‘Dinner smells good,’ he said.
Otto was eating his second bowl of cornflakes, when without warning someone banged on the front door. Startled he gulped in, lots of air and cornflakes.
‘Otto?’ said Mum.
Cornflake projectiles exploded from his mouth and his nose.
He tried not to look at Mum. She was swelling up like a balloon fit to burst. Direct eye contact could be fatal. He hadn’t meant to but the cornflake explosion was a real beauty. Bruce and Figs would rate it – big time.
‘Oh Otto,’ said Mum, deflating with each word. She grabbed a tea-towel from the kitchen, wiped her neck, and disappeared down the hall.
Cassie was standing by the window, staring out. She must have moved before he sneezed.
He started to make a list in his head, trying to remember everything to tell Bruce and Figs on Monday. He almost swore there was a squishy noise as the cornflake goo started sliding from the kink in the neck of the jam jar, making a snail trail down the glass. The goo was advancing on the label’s strawberries and blackberries when Otto realised.
It was too quiet. Someone had come to the door and Jed hadn’t barked at all. He heard the soft click as Mum opened the front door. He grabbed the jam jar, went into the kitchen, and washed his hands.
‘I’m afraid we’ve never sold eggs from the door,’ Mum was saying.
Otto picked up a cloth and started wiping the jar.
‘My Gran – she told me to come.’
Otto froze. It was a girl’s voice. He knew exactly who it was.
‘There’s a sign at the gate. Gran said she got eggs here.’
There was a sign at the gate. It was almost buried in the long grass. Cassie had found it last year when they’d been waiting for Mum to pick them up. She’d peeled off long faded pink strips and made patterns on the drive.
‘Well,’ said Mum, ‘seeing as you’ve come all the way from the island. If you can wait, Otto could collect some for you.’
The girl from the island followed Otto. Jed trotted beside her, his tail wagging and nose almost touching her elbow, as if he was showing her the way. At the gate to the hen run Jed stopped her by turning slightly and nudging her with his shoulder. Bets stopped and patted him.
Otto filled the carton. He took the first eggs he spotted; she couldn’t expect quality control, buying them at the gate. People gave Mum their old egg cartons. These were filled with the too-small eggs and the too-big ones, double-yokers sometimes. Usually Mum gave the cartons away. It was weird how many people didn’t even know double-yokers existed. He’d seen hundreds.
He turned around. Bets was crouched next to the fence waggling her fingers as if trying to hypnotise a chicken. She had short black hair, shorn with clippers like a boy, and her eyes were darkest brown – nearly the same colour as her hair.
‘A chicken got stuck in that fence last night,’ he said.
She frowned up at him, twisting her hand, sliding it back through the wire.
‘Ever eaten a double-yoker?’ he said, holding out the carton.
‘Sure,’ she said. She turned the carton, tracing a felt tip rainbow with two fingers. Cassie had been at the carton; she liked doing them in all different colours.
‘Good colours,’ said Bets.
‘That’s Cassie,’ said Otto. ‘My sister.’ He didn’t say anything else. People could figure Cassie out for themselves.
‘She likes colours then,’ said Bets. She cradled the carton in one hand and unzipped her back pack.
‘You go to Red Flats School, don’t you?’ he said in a rush.
She slowly put the carton in her backpack and zipped it up. ‘Usually,’ she said.
Evasive, thought Otto. A person who knew an answer but didn’t want to say, according to Miss Walker. Sometimes Miss would throw more words, careful words but tossed quickly, so there wasn’t enough thinking time to dodge. Sometimes though, she said nothing.
‘Oh – right,’ said Otto. He wasn’t a teacher. If she wouldn’t even talk about school there was no way he was going to ask her about the island.
Bets glanced at him. For a second she looked right at him. Properly. Then her eyes shifted back to her feet. Her green sneakers looked newish but the laces were ragged, fraying from grey tips.
‘Did you know,’ she said. ‘You’ve got a cornflake up your nose.’