I wake up on the dunes. It’s early and the beach is empty except for the birds. Beer bottles and fast food wrappers litter the shore, and every so often a seagull swoops to scoop up a stray hot chip – cold and bloody on the sand.
A breeze comes up off the water and I look around for my cardigan but it’s gone. I wonder for a moment what Ellie will say when I tell her, but I know already that I won’t. Down on the shore a wave breaks, flat and grey as a bedsheet, and I wrap my arms around me, waiting for the sun to come up.
* * *
We met down at the hostel foyer at six. Half-eaten boxes of Dominoes lay open on the table and everyone stood around eating lukewarm pizza and sipping soft drinks from Styrofoam cups.
Our team leader, Michael, called out our groups while a pimple-faced girl went around handing out supply kits: two bags of red frogs, four bottles of water, a stash of pamphlets, a blue plastic rape whistle.
‘Have fun, but remember, we’re here to help, not to make friends,’ said Michael, ‘and if you get into any trouble, just head back to hostel or call one of the leaders.’
As everyone started to pair off I saw my assigned partner making her way towards me. She was wearing baggy blue jeans and a too-tight t-shirt – her soft nipples showing through the fabric.
‘Hey, I’m Casey,’ she said, holding out a chubby hand.
I looked down at the tag pinned to her breast, hoping there was some mistake. But the name was there, scrawled in fat Texta letters. I drained the rest of my Fanta, wiping the pink lipgloss-smear from the plastic rim.
‘So, where d’you wanna start?’ she said brightly.
‘I dunno,’ I said.
‘Maybe down on the green?’
I shrugged and followed her out, throwing my nametag in the bin as I walked out of the foyer and into the sun.
* * *
Mum didn’t want me to go. The whole of last term she’d been reading up on it – cutting out articles from the newspaper, talking to the other mothers from school. She’d started leaving pamphlets and printouts on the kitchen table: hiking trips, volunteering abroad, youth camps.
‘We could go somewhere together,’ she said, her smile tight as she buttered her toast one morning. ‘A girl’s trip. I’ve always wanted to go to Sydney.’
Those final weeks at school, all anyone seemed to talk about was Schoolies – where they were going, who they were going with. Ellie’s Mum had already bought her a new wardrobe for it, and apparently the boys from St Pat’s had booked the same hostel as the girls.
I found out about the Red Frogs through youth group. They’d left some pamphlets in the foyer and I picked one up and left it on the dinner table for Mum and Dad to see. Even then, it took about a week for them to come around. Mum made some calls to the organiser and talked to some of the parents who’d let their kids go. But then my exam results came in and they didn’t really feel like they could say no. I’d done better than any of us could have imagined.
‘They seem like good people, Rob,’ Mum said to my father over dinner. ‘Plus, I think she deserves a bit of fun.’
He studied the vegetables on his plate with great care then looked up. ‘A lot of confused young people out there,’ he said quietly, ‘our girl could do some good.’
* * *
Out on the streets, the town was packed. Girls walked around in bikinis and cut-off denim shorts, while boys gathered on street corners, shirtless and sipping beers.
Looking down at my yellow floral dress, I was thankful Ellie had let me borrow some of her clothes for the trip. Even though I was almost eighteen, Mum still took me shopping in the Little Miss section of David Jones, and Dad said I wasn’t allowed a two-piece.
‘So, where you from?’ asked Casey. With her pale skin and greasy hair, she stuck out like a sore thumb.
‘Brisbane,’ I said.
‘Cool. I’m from Bathurst.’
‘You ever been to the races there?’ she said.
I shook my head.
‘Me neither,’ she said. ‘Dad said they’re full of drunks and hoons.’
A group of boys walked by carrying slabs of beers on sunburnt shoulders. Casey stepped off the pavement to let them pass, but I kept walking, caught in the salty slipstream of a group of girls, laughing and sipping slushies from plastic straws.
‘Hey beautiful, smile,’ a boy said as he passed, and a tiny thrill rolled through me like a wave.
* * *
We reached the park at the end of the main road – a thin grassy strip that separated the town from the beach. Wooden picnic tables lay scattered with bottles and open chip packets, and teenagers sat around on beach towels, drinking and laughing. Over in the pavilion a DJ was playing and two girls in sarongs danced barefoot on the grass.
‘So, do you have a plan?’ said Casey. She’d stopped on the edge of the park, hand shielding her eyes from the setting sun. She must have been the only person here without sunnies.
‘What do you mean?’ I said.
‘Like, a way of getting people talking.’
‘Talking about what?’
She lowered her hand from her eyes and looked at me funny. ‘About God,’ she said.
I looked down at my sandals. ‘Oh, no.’ I said, ‘I just kind of thought I’d… help out.’
She was about to say something back when a group of teenagers caught her eye.
‘Let’s go,’ she said, and before I could stop her she was halfway across the park, the bag of lollies in her hand.
‘Hey guys, I was just wondering if anyone wanted a red frog?’
The girls stopped talking and looked her up and down. One of the guys nudged his friend – his singlet so loose and low I could see the tops of his nipples. A silver bar poking through the brown flesh.
‘Do they have drugs in them?’ the friend said, sniggering.
Casey smiled. ‘No, but if you eat enough you can get a pretty good sugar high!’ She laughed and looked back to me for support but I looked away.
‘I’ll have one,’ said a girl on the other side of the group. She was wearing a crop top and bikini bottoms and had an open Vodka Cruiser in her hand. Lush Guava. She leaned over and stretched out her long, pink tongue. Casey paused for a moment, then carefully placed the lolly in the girl’s mouth. The boys whistled and laughed.
‘Hot stuff ladies.’
‘Can I have one too?’
* * *
Growing up, we were never allowed junk food. Mum would keep a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table. Nature’s candy, she called it. She always said it was for health reasons, but I’d seen the way she looked at other mothers as they dolled out chocolate bars to their kids – the way she steered clear of teenagers slurping cokes and chewing gum at the bus stop. The tuts she made at the supermarket checkout. And she wasn’t alone. All the mothers at church were like that. Thin and watchful.
At youth group on Friday nights, the kids dived at the snack table – taking greedy handfuls of jelly snakes and Burger Rings. We played party games and sang Christian songs – the girls pink-cheeked and giggly as Marty brought out his guitar. The boys nervous and sweaty-palmed as we joined hands for prayer. It was the closest we got to teenage rebellion. Boys touching girls and our hearts beating fast from all the sugar and soft drink – so that when our parents came to pick us up at seven o’clock, we avoided their eyes in the rear-view mirror, as though we had something to hide.
* * *
The night came in, slow at first, then fast and black all at once. Streetlamps flickered on and the bright signs of tattoo parlours and bottle shops cast coloured pools on the pavements. Out on the streets, girls had changed out of swimmers and into dresses and heels and boys hung off balconies, calling and chanting at them as they walked by.
Tits out for the boys, tits out for the boys.
The girls giggled and formed a tighter pack, the way fish do, their silvery dresses glistening in the dark. One broke free, a long-haired girl with a tank-top on. She hesitated for a moment, looking back at the pack, then lifted her shirt quickly. The boys cheered and the girls squealed, their heels taptaptapping on the pavement as they scuttled off down the street.
Now that the sun had set, the air was cooler, and I reached into my bag for my cardigan – sea blue with pearly buttons.
‘Don’t lose this,’ Ellie had said, as she pulled it out of her wardrobe, ‘my Mum will kill me,’ and I’d nodded, folding it carefully into my bag.
‘Do you need one of these too?’ she said, pulling out a tiny plastic package from her bedside drawer.
It took me a moment to recognise what it was.
‘Oh no, I’m right,’ I’d said, feeling my face go hot.
She shrugged and tossed it back into the drawer.
* * *
Standing on the grass I felt a warm hand on my arm.
‘Hey, you got any water?’
I turned around to find a brown-haired boy standing behind to me. He was wearing board shorts and an open hoodie – a tiny shark tooth dangling from a chain around his neck.
‘My mate over there is pretty gone,’ he said, pointing vaguely out across the beach.
‘Oh. Yeah, sure,’ I said, foraging around in my tote bag. ‘They’re only small though.’
He looked down at the bottle in my hand and smiled – big white teeth through soft brown lips. ‘Maybe I could have two then?’ he said.
‘Yeah, for sure,’ I said, quickly getting another.
‘Actually,’ he said, scanning the park, ‘maybe you could just come with me? You here with anyone?’
I looked over my shoulder to where Casey was sitting with a girl in the gutter. The girl’s head hung loose on her neck, bright green vomit puddled around her ankles. Beside her, Casey was holding out a Red Frogs pamphlet. What’s the deal with God anyway?
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘But I can come.’
Away from the streetlamps, the beach was dark and covered in cratery footsteps. The brown-haired boy walked in front and I walked behind, looking up every time I stumbled in the sand to check he hadn’t noticed.
Halfway along the beach, we reached a large crowd gathered round a bonfire. Guys stood by the flames drinking longnecks and girls huddled in chattering groups, their high heels sinking into the sand. Music played from speakers somewhere and a guy with two lit fire-sticks threw them high into the dark air.
The brown-haired boy took me by the arm and led me over to the edge of the dunes where his friend sat, slumped over in the sand.
‘You alright mate?’ said the boy.
His friend groaned and dribbled onto his shirt.
‘Hey look, this nice girl has brought you water. See mate? Look at the nice girl.’ He tried to lift his friend’s head but it fell back heavily to his chest.
‘You should probably take him to the ambos,’ I said, ‘they’re just up the hill.’
‘Nah, he’ll be right. Just needs to stop being such a lightweight, hey mate?’
He lit up a cigarette, blowing white smoke into the black air. ‘Anyway, what school did you go to?’
I hesitated for a moment. ‘The Academy,’ I said.
‘Ah, so you’re one of those God girls.’
‘Bet you got like ninety-nine in your exams?’
‘You want a drink?’
‘Ah c’mon. Don’t be lame.’
He ducked away into the crowd and came back with a bottle of something. He cracked off the metal lid and handed it to me. The glass was sticky and when I brought it to my lips it tasted like lemonade, but not.
‘What about you?’ I said.
‘Cool. That’s all boys right?’
‘Yeah. Shit hey?’
The song changed and girls squealed and rushed to dance by the fire. The brown-haired boy smiled and said, ‘Let’s go,’ and lead me into the crowd. The music was loud and everyone was dancing. Blue lights from the DJ booth flashed across the beach and for a moment it felt like we could be underwater – everyone moving and swaying in time, like seaweed. The beat was so heavy the sand seemed to vibrate and the boy pulled me closer, his hand on my skin, breath on my face. I tried to move in time, following the other girls – the sway of their hips, the swish of their hair, lips moving in time to the song. Somewhere along the beach the fire twirler threw his sticks into the night, and I threw my head back and tried to think about God, but nothing came.
‘Are you having fun?’ the boy said.
‘Yeah, for sure,’ I said.
* * *
It reminded me of church camp. The way they’d lead us into the small, stuffy hall. A hundred kids, all scuff-kneed and red-cheeked, exhausted after a week of hiking and swimming and praying. Reverend Peters would deliver his sermon, if you don’t open your mouth, the holy spirit can’t come out, and the choir would open their wet, pink mouths, as if on cue, the songs pouring out. Mrs Gillespie would play the piano, thumping the keys, and everyone would sing along – our voices rising and the music getting louder and larger as it built to the chorus, a hundred bodies stamping and singing and clapping, until the hall seemed to shake – our voices hitting the walls and passing right through us, like sunlight, burning us up. And then, just like that, the music would end and we’d open our eyes to the hot little hall. The air slowly settling and all of us standing there. Hands half-raised to the heavens, faces wet with tears.
* * *
The song ended and a strange silence hung over the beach. Down on the shore a wave broke and somewhere near my feet a girl threw up.
The brown-haired boy leaned in close and I felt his wet breath in my ear.
‘Wanna come up on the dunes?’ he said, ‘You can see the lighthouse from there.’
He took me by the wrist and pulled me up the sandy slope. Away from the fire the dunes were dark and slippery and I almost tripped over a body, sleeping or passed out, I couldn’t tell. But the boy kept pulling me up.
At the top of the dunes he stood behind me, his warm chest on my back, tracing the curve of the headland with his finger.
‘There,’ he said.
High up on the headland, the lighthouse stood, tall and bright, casting its white light across the ocean, like a torch in the dark.
* * *
She used to read to me at night, the black, leather-bound book on her lap. Always the same stories, about Cain and Able, Noah and the flood, the brave queen Esther – her voice soft and safe beneath the lamplight. But when the room was dark and she went to bed, I discovered other stories. Read them to myself under the blankets. Stories about Hannah and Elkanah, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. About Dinah and Schechem, the beautiful prince who seized her and humiliated her. The light from my torch illuminating the forbidden words. Genesis, Revelations, Deuteronomy. When he found her in the field, the engaged girl cried out, but there was no one to save her.
* * *
He pulled me onto the sand and climbed on top of me. He tasted of smoke and beer, his tongue pushing wet and hot into my mouth. I felt the breeze between my legs as he lifted up my dress – the tight grip of the bikini pulled loose. Hey, it’s okay, it’s okay. I tried to roll away but he took hold of my arms, pinning them down, my fingers grabbing at loose sand and seagrass. He pushed harder and I felt a hot pain – back and forth, back and forth – the waves coming in and out and the little white tooth swinging through the air like a cross. I closed my eyes and in that moment I thought of Casey, standing alone on the beach, thought about the stories, my mother’s voice, light in the dark. Reverend Peters and the hot stuffy hall – if you don’t open your mouth – and the choir singing, louder and louder until I felt as though my walls might break.
And then, just like that, it was over.
He rolled off me and let out a long, deep sigh. Across the sea, the white beam from the lighthouse illuminated the crashing waves and I felt myself sink slowly into the sand.
* * *
As the sun comes up over the beach people begin to appear – early morning swimmers and joggers and dog-walkers. A street cleaner picks up bottles and rubbish and a girl walks down the beach, heels in hand. No one looks at me as they pass.
I reach my into my bag – run my fingers across the outline of pamphlets and water bottles, the blue plastic whistle, until I find it. I take a single red frog from the packet and place it on my tongue – hold it there, hot and sweet – until it feels as though it might burn me up.