I was fifteen the summer Sarah moved in next door. My mum and dad hadn’t hidden their delight when our previous neighbours—with their all-night parties and motorbikes—had put up the For Sale sign and eventually moved on. The day Sarah’s family moved in, Mum baked a fruitcake and Dad collected a bottle of home brew. We slipped through the strands of barbed wire to spread a bit of neighbourly cheer. And check them out.
Sarah’s dad played prop forward and had a ridiculously deep voice and knuckle-crusher grip. Her mum was a waif and an orthopaedic surgeon. There were three kids; the seven-year-old boy with the bowl cut who was introduced to us as Boofhead, Maxine, his ten-year-old sister who had curls so red and tight that she may have needed an asbestos pillow, and Sarah. She was thirteen. Her hair was red, too, but deep like polished jarrah and long and straight, clamped off her freckle-dusted face in a ponytail that hung to her shoulders. It whipped at the air as she gave me the guided tour of their new home. There were cardboard boxes in every room and we lingered at her door. The bed was made and the box on the floor was open, a single teddy bear’s paw reaching for the ceiling. Pick me, pick me!
‘It’s such a mess,’ she said.
‘It’s … it’s nice,’ I replied, the blood charging to my face. I’d never felt quite so awkward. I’d never seen the insides of a girl’s room before. Well, that’s not true. I’d seen my cousin’s Cinderella bedspread but she wasn’t a girl as such, she was my cousin.
I helped them set up their trampoline and double bounced Boofhead until his laughter turned to tears. Sarah told me not to worry, that it had been an accident and besides, Boofhead cried all the time, but I did feel like a monster. I sat demurely on the edge of the mat while Maxine bounced. Sarah sat at the other end and we talked about where they’d been living in South Australia and that their new house was the fifth one they’d called home in as many years.
I liked her lips. She carried her head like the Arab filly at Thompson’s place. She was confident and smart and used big words and talked about interesting things. She knew stuff. She read books and had opinions about things like world hunger and Islam. The mozzies started eating us as the sun went down and my parents collected me on their way home. Sarah said goodbye and I asked her if she was going to be around then next day. She shrugged, and smiled.
Mum and Dad sighed in unison when we made it home. Dad said they were a vast improvement. I had to agree.
I heard the kids shouting and laughing the following day. I brushed my hair and ran my fingers over the fuzz of moustache I’d been cultivating since I was thirteen. I huffed into my hand and smelled my breath.
I found them in the dam. The relentless heat had all but drained their cultured puddle and the kids had found the mud. Squelching, farting, knee-deep slick clay. Boofhead started throwing it. The girls pelted him and he hobbled home crying with his arms stretched wide and a healthy bolus stuck to his right cheek.
‘Coming in?’ Sarah asked.
I looked at my shorts and t-shirt. Maxine landed a gob of clay in my hair and giggled as I kicked my boots off. I waded into the cool slush and did my best to hold my smile. It squidged between my toes and made the worst possible first-date noises. I grabbed a lump and pelted Sarah. It slapped into her thigh and she squealed.
‘Sorry,’ I said.
She bent forward and cried quietly into the muck.
Maxine frowned at me and looked at her wrist before resting it on her sister’s shoulder.
‘You okay, Sarah?’ she asked.
Sarah whispered and rubbed her leg.
‘Sorry,’ I said again, and stepped closer.
With a banshee yowl and a cake-eating grin, Sarah snatched at the mud and sent me tumbling backwards in self-defence. My feet couldn’t move. My hands shot out behind me and sunk elbow deep into the slush. I managed to hold myself above the mess. My bottom was hovering dangerously close to the slop. I was pinned. I hung there like a human coffee table, unable to get up without getting seriously muddified.
The sun mauled at my eyes and then I was in shadow. Sarah stood above me, rolling a glob of mud from hand to hand, her face cut with an impish smile.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Please. Mercy!’
She grabbed more mud.
‘Kiss him,’ Maxine said. ‘Get him while he’s down.’
‘Now there’s an idea,’ Sarah said, and I started crabbing frantically towards the edge of the dam. Maxine stepped behind me and blocked my retreat.
Oh well, I thought. If you have to go, you have to go.
I closed my eyes. The smell of Sarah’s shampoo cut through the mud-rank air. Her hair tickled my nose, and I finally tasted smooth soft … mud.
I coughed and spat and let myself slump. I wiped my face on my sleeve and began to sink. The mud was cool on the back of my head and the bubble inside me burst. I didn’t care any more. I couldn’t get much dirtier. I grabbed at the squealing Sarah and she fell forward with a flup. Maxine had made it to the shore and bayed laughter at the sun.
Sarah had a fresh freckle on her nose. ‘Let’s get her,’ she growled, and I rolled onto my stomach.
Maxine realised too late that she was croc bait. We took hold of a leg each and dragged her in. She was covered by the time we let her go. She sat there and pretended to cry so we sobbed, too. At the top of our lungs.
‘You’ve got a spot of mud on your cheek,’ Sarah said.
‘You’ve got one on your nose,’ I replied.
‘Here, let me get it for you,’ she said, and smeared her clay slippery hand across my face.
She didn’t fight when I wiped her look with my goopy paw, just cracked the mud with a smile and spat. ‘That’s better,’ she said. ‘Thank you very much.’
I took them to the creek and we clouded up the water as we swam our clothes clean. We lounged in the sun and grew crusty as we dried. I laid on my back in the grass, the crook of my arm shielding my eyes from the summer.
I heard Maxine whisper to her sister. ‘Kiss him,’ she said.
‘No,’ Sarah sighed.
‘Go on,’ Maxine said aloud.
And she did.
Her lips pressed against mine. I got such a fright that I opened my mouth and sat up.
Sarah stood, frantically wiped at her face and spat.
I held my hand over my own lips, my heart flipping around like a trout.
I knew there’d be nothing as sweet as a third kiss.