When Gwen walked through the Wanderer’s front doors thirty minutes later it was to find Carter sitting at a table in the centre of the room, head down, with a broom in one hand.
Carter looked up.
Gwen began shuffling chairs around, getting the place ready for the day. Carter stared at her blankly.
“Why aren’t you hungover? I feel like I’m about to die.”
Gwen grinned impishly at him.
“Practice. I am hungover, I just choose not to make a huge deal out of it.”
Carter stood, and began sweeping.
“Fair enough. I suppose you’ve probably eaten something in the last twelve hours as well, which might help.”
Gwen snatched the broom from his hand.
“Go and get something to eat then. The sweeping can wait until you’re back, and fed.”
Carter protested weakly.
“It’s only my second day on the job. What about Henry?”
“He’ll understand. When I left him, he’d just finished puking into the bushes outside his house.”
Gwen leaned the broom against a wall.
“Poor guy still thinks he’s twenty sometimes. Go on. I recommend the bakery. I’ll put some coffee on for you.”
Carter thanked her and stepped out into the daylight. Even at – Carter looked at his watch and flinched – half past seven, it was already warm. By midday it would be scorching. Carter walked across the road and through the plastic strip curtains of the bakery, and almost bumped into a man coming out, hands occupied with plastic bags filled with salad rolls and drinks. It was Marcus. Carter turned and looked across the road. Sure enough, a dirty ute was parked across the street. Tobias sat in the passenger seat. He was looking directly at the two of them.
Marcus was looking at the ute as well. He pursed his lips, appearing to reach a decision, and turned to face Carter.
“Carter, I got a bit carried away last night. Don’t hold it against me. I hope you decide to stay in Fisherman’s Creek for a while.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll probably be around for a bit, work’s good and it’s definitely an interesting place.”
Marcus was already stepping away. He seemed to Carter to be itching to go.
“Yeah. Really interesting. Better go. See you around, Carter.”
He turned and practically ran back to the ute. Carter watched as Tobias called Marcus to the passenger side window. He appeared to say a few words, then nodded, and Marcus ran around to the driver’s side and got in the door. The ute pulled away. Carter rubbed his temples, and pushed through the strip curtains.
There was air conditioning inside, and Carter took a minute to just stand and enjoy it, eyes shut. A polite cough from Lauren brought him out of his reverie. She was standing behind the counter. Through a door behind her, he could see Stacey, removing a tray from an oven
“Hot out there?”
“Just a bit.”
Lauren nodded knowingly.
“I don’t envy those boys out at the farm. It’s only going to get worse from here. It’s not even summer yet.”
Carter eyed the various baked sweets and snacks stacked on shelves behind a pane of glass.
“What exactly do people farm around here?”
Lauren pursed her lips in thought.
“Potatoes and onions, mostly. There’s some cows, too. Dairy.”
Carter squatted down in order to get a better look at a cheese roll with some kind of vegetable on it.
“Really? Nothing else? Because I keep hearing it’s almost harvest time, but I’ve never heard of potatoes or onions being harvested in December.”
There was silence. He stood up. Lauren had turned away and was busying herself by restacking the loaves of bread on the back shelf.
“Well, we do here. They must be different potatoes or something.”
Stacey had emerged from the back now, carrying a tray of bread rolls, which she slotted into place under the counter. She looked at Lauren, saw something in her face she was hiding from Carter.
“You okay, hun?”
Lauren finished her stacking task and turned back around. She gave Carter a quick sideways glance, almost too quick to see.
“Yeah. Carter was just asking about the farms and the harvest.”
Stacey hesitated for a split second.
“You thinking of doing some farm work, Carter?”
Carter looked at the two of them. He had been to towns before that were coy about this sort of thing. Usually it sprang from not wanting to take jobs away from locals, particularly these days, when there seemed to be fewer and fewer jobs to go around. Locals would intentionally be vague when discussing harvest times and farm locations to make it difficult for a wandering outsider like himself to even find where the jobs were.
This was something different, though. After all, Stacey and Lauren had pointed him towards the job at the Wanderer in the first place. He squatted back down.
“I thought I’d see if they needed a hand. I’m happy at the Wanderer, though. Of course, it’s only been one day, so that could change. I’ll just have one of these cheese rolls with the olives on it, thanks.”
Lauren ducked down and picked up the roll with a pair of tongs. She placed it in a brown paper bag. Then, she retrieved a post-it note and a pen from beside the register, and scribbled something down quickly. She stuck the note to the bag and handed it to him.
“Two dollars fifty for the roll, and there’s some information on that note about the farms around here, if you do decide to pick up some extra work.”
Thanking her, he handed her the money and, waving to Stacey, stepped back out into the heat. He peeled the yellow post-it off of his paper bag and read the note Lauren had left him.
Will tell you about harvest. Come 23 Wattle Grove, Friday night 9pm. Stacey out then.
He stood there for a moment, then crumpled up the post-it and stuck it in his pants pocket. His mind was racing with questions. Why keep it a secret from Stacey? What was the harvest? He walked back over to the Wanderer, lost in thought. He could just leave, of course. Everything he owned fit in his backpack. There would be work somewhere else. If he got desperate, he knew how to hunt, and find food.
He stepped through the doors of the Wanderer. Henry was sitting at the bar, huge dark circles under his eyes, nursing a cup of coffee. Gwen was checking the beer taps. The Wanderer’s huge ceiling fans were on, and the air inside wasn’t cool, but it was much more comfortable than it was outside in the street. He had a bed upstairs that he was paying for, honestly, by working hard. He had food in his hand. He wasn’t worried about when his next meal would be.
He waved at Gwen, who waved back, and Henry, who merely nodded and grunted. He recovered the broom from where it stood, leaning against the wall, and began to sweep.
No, he didn’t think he was going to leave any time soon.
It was time for recess, and Joseph was sitting under a tree in the schoolyard, eating his apple, alone. Joseph was often alone at school. He had had friends in the past. They didn’t usually stick around after coming to his house, though. His father didn’t keep a very clean house, which most kids found off putting.
His father also had something of a temper. Inevitably, his friend would do or say something his father found to be at best disrespectful, or at worst a sin, and launch into one of his impromptu sermons. On one occasion, he had grabbed the poor child by the wrist and tried to force him to pray, which resulted in a heated argument with the boy’s father. Joseph had eventually stopped having friends around, and it was a short step from there to just not having friends.
He was a lonely boy, even though he would never say it. He had his father, who he loved, of course. He also had his dog, Thomas – although Thomas was never allowed inside and his father mostly kept him chained up in the backyard. A boy needs more than his father and his dog, though. He needs friends, to run around with and break things with and fall off of things with. Loneliness will turn a boy cold, and Joseph was lonely.
So he sat under the tree, alone, while the other children ran around and played games and never invited him to join them. Sometimes he would ask his teacher, Ms. Jennings, if he could bring pencils and paper into the yard, and she would take pity on him and let him, and he would sit and draw pictures of clothes. One of the other kids, an older boy named Ellis Mulligan, had tried to take his pictures once. Eddy was a huge boy, a full head taller than the next tallest kid in class, and would often take advantage of his size to push the other kids around. Ellis had walked up to him as he sat under the tree and snatched his picture away and called him a sissy, then kicked him in the shin. Joseph had jumped up and-
Joseph shook his head.
Ellis had a scar on his neck now and he and the other children didn’t try to take away Joseph’s drawings anymore. And they definitely didn’t ask him to join their games or to come around to their houses.
The teachers were kind to him, though. Ms. Jennings let him draw outside, and she didn’t mind that he wanted to sit by himself in class. The principal was kind, too. Joseph and his father had had a talk with the principal and Ellis and his mother outside of school after Ellis had tried to take Joseph’s picture away. Joseph’s father had yelled a lot. He yelled at the principal, he yelled at Ellis’ mother, and he even yelled at Ellis and then the principal told him to leave and so he and Joseph left.
Joseph’s father said that the principal and Ellis’ mother and Ellis were all sinners and bound for hell and that the Fisher would get them. Joseph agreed that Ellis would probably be taken by the Fisher – and he would sometimes, when Ellis was being particularly loud in class, imagine exactly that, Ellis being dragged down into the depths of the creek by the Fisher, which in Joseph’s young mind was often pictured as a large fishing hook. He wasn’t so sure about the principal, though, who after their meeting always asked him how he was going and if he had anything he wanted to tell the principal about his father.