I couldn’t believe he didn’t tell me.
He failed to mention it after my mom agreed Missy and I could spend the summer with him and my Uncle Jack in Tasmania. He didn’t say a word when our flight arrived from Sydney and they picked us up at the Launceton airport.
It wasn’t until we were on the road, in his dad’s compact ’75 Holden, that my thirteen-year-old cousin Daniel said anything about us going camping.
“Bet you can’t sleep outside,” Daniel said, twisting around from the front seat, to tease my little sister.
“I can too,” Missy said.
“Bet you can’t,” Daniel said.
“I can too. I’m not afraid.”
Are you kidding me? Simon thought. She needed to be afraid of everything.
When I got over the shock that our dad’s promotion meant moving us from Yonkers, New York, to his hometown, Sydney, Australia, I ran to the library to do research. I read about Thorny Devil lizards covered with spikes; strange giant rats called Macrotis with long, pointed noses and rabbit ears; the Eastern Brown snake, the second most poisonous snake on the planet; and the Tasmanian Devil with large jaws and blood-chilling screams. If I didn’t know how I was going to survive, how could I help Missy? While I was almost thirteen, I was growing up, not out; making me feel like the skinny bat beefy guys whack to practice hitting home runs. Though no one played baseball in Sydney.
“Simon, tell Daniel I could too sleep outside without being afraid.”
How could I tell her what I didn’t believe?
“No one is sleeping outside,” Uncle Jack said.
“Dad, we’re loading up your VW camper when we get home, right?” Daniel asked.
Daniel’s T-shirt sleeves were rolled up to show off his muscles. He had that natural ruggedness bred from having two Australian parents. His physical toughness sprouted from the ground up: rock-steady large feet, broad legs, wide chest, and a thick neck. That powerful growth, however, stopped short of his head, leaving it slightly smaller than his body, which in my opinion, left little room for deep thought.
“Going into the wild because we’re a wild bunch.” Daniel said.
The Wild Bunch was Daniel’s favorite movie because his mother let him watch it for the first time two years ago when his dad returned from Vietnam. None of my friends from New York even knew Australia fought in the war.
At my high school, the wild bunch were the cool kids who got attention without getting detention. They’d walk right up to the edge, stand inches from someone’s face, yet instead of throwing the first punch, they’d push back with words and a look to make the other guy back down. But, heck, those kids, like Daniel, had football-practice muscles. Literary muscles have no mass.
Uncle Jack drove the two-lane highway through barren land with nothing but patches of scrubby grass in all directions. With one hand on the steering wheel, he stole glances at me and Missy in the back seat and smiled. I didn’t know my dad’s brother well, and it was hard to read facial expressions with his long, reddish brown mustache and full beard that extended across to his ears and down his neck. The bottom half of his face was all hair, and if his mouth didn’t open to speak, you wouldn’t know for sure he had one. His tan leather hat had a broken brim rolled down to shield his ears from the sun. The top of his left ear was missing and he wouldn’t tell us why. Missy thought he fended off a wild animal. Daniel and I thought a crazy Aussie bit it off in a pub fight.
Uncle Jack’s other arm was draped over the open window, his hand dangling to catch the breeze as we passed a section of land bordered by barbwire fencing. The day my dad drove us around Sydney to show off the tall building where he’d soon be working, I had barely stuck my head out of our car window when he yelled: “that’s a good way to lose it.” Car windows in my family are to be rolled no lower than half way.
“Place for a big brekkie just up the road.” Uncle Jack announced.
“I can eat a big brekkie.” Missy said.
Missy was a chunky eight-year-old with round cheeks that swelled into baby pink balloons whenever she smiled, which was a lot. While we’d only lived in Australia for a month, she was already picking up ‘Aussie’ and ‘Tassie’ words to tease our American mom, who insisted: “It’s still called breakfast. Living here won’t change that.” Our dad grinned whenever she corrected us.
“Will there be wild animals?” Missy asked Daniel.
I wanted to yell out yes. When we got to Uncle Jack’s farm, why couldn’t we stick around there? He’d told us his neighbor had cows. Cows were okay; they only ate grass.
“Of course there are wild animals,” Daniel said, “but my dad is a rifleman.”
“Wow,” Missy said.
She’d obviously forgotten that a rifleman, as our dad explained, was simply a part-time infantry soldier in the Australian army reserve. Still, I liked that Uncle Jack could protect us. My pacifist dad hated guns.
“But, kids, I’m not working weekends this summer,” Uncle Jack said.
“Isn’t that cool?” Daniel said.
What Uncle Jack did the rest of the week—and how they let him into the reserves with that beard—none of us knew. Part-time work was all he’d let on.
After we parked in front of Harry’s Wallaby Cafe, Missy bolted from the car to dash inside.
“What’s up with your sister?” Daniel asked.
I’d begged Mom to keep Missy at home so this could just be a guy trip. After Daniel’s parents got divorced, Daniel wouldn’t stop bragging about his macho dad. I yearned for that toughness to rub off on me, as if it were an ointment that could seep into my skin to make me stronger. I’d watched guys at my old high school massage sports cream around their injured knees and then sprint onto the field to cheering fans. My dad said those athletes were stupid, causing their body more harm. But they were fearless in a way I didn’t know how to be. I didn’t tell my mom this and she ignored my plea. “Without you two kids around,” she said, “I can fix up our new house. Besides, you’re her big brother. It’ll be good for you to watch over her.”
“She’s really gotta pee,” I said to Daniel and then headed inside the cafe. I asked the hostess, “Where’s the restroom…I mean the loo?”
“Down there,” she said, “and dunny’s out back.”
My cousin had taught me that you can tell where a person was from by whether they called an outhouse a toot, thunder box, or dunny. This hostess was probably from Queensland. My mother wouldn’t let us use the words “toot” or “thunder box.” Said she didn’t need any auditory assistance.
I waited for Missy, who exited all smiles.
“I watched two ladies paint their lips brown.”
Missy was color blind and had a hard time seeing red. I’d stopped trying to correct her.
“A lady said they eat Wallabies here. Simon, can we eat a Wallaby?”
“I hope not,” I said, hoping this place like Barney’s Big Bear Restaurant in St. Louis where my mom was born; only a funny name with no bear on the menu.
That’s the thing about wanting to believe something. Sometimes you wished belief itself was enough to outweigh reality. Like wishing for good grades in science when you don’t stand a chance.
The next day, we woke up at Uncle Jack’s farmhouse. What used to be his second home was now his only home; Daniel lived in Melbourne with his mom. The house was perched atop a hill with four white pillars along the porch. I remember thinking that if Uncle Jack had painted it barnyard red, instead of gray, it would have been a dead ringer for my grandparent’s place in rural Missouri, what with its grass fields that slopped down a small hill and flattened out. I could imagine this place covered with snow and making the most awesome sled ride down to his neighbor’s farmhouse. But if we never left Australia, I’d never see snow again.
By the afternoon, we finished loading up Uncle Jack’s Volkswagen camper. He told us he bought it from a hippy couple last summer. Plastered with orange peace symbols and yellow daisy decals, it hardly blended in with the natural landscape. But that’s why I liked it. It reminded me of home.
Uncle Jack steered the camper along the twisting roads to the rainforest where we’d be camping, while the three of us played Crazy Eights around a small kitchen table in the back. Daniel flexed his biceps after each triumph—as if physical strength, instead of luck, had anything to do with his winning streak. He’d won thirty out of our twenty-five games.
“Uncle Jack, how many more miles…I mean kilometers, to go?” I asked.
While I was glad the Tasmania rainforest was nothing like the Australian Outback, I thought focusing on facts, like distance, would keep me from worrying. Tall, white bark trees stood along the road like rigid soldiers offering temporary protection as we passed.
“It’s not how far away something is,” Uncle Jack said without turning around, “it’s how long it takes to get there. Time. It’s the only measurement that matters in this world. Even one kilometer can seem like a hundred if you can’t get there in time no matter…no matter how hard you try.”
Okay, so how many hours? I thought. But, before I could speak, Uncle Jack tightened his grip on the steering wheel and his eyes, which I caught in the rearview mirror, moistened.
“Hey, Daniel,” I whispered, “is your dad okay?”
“What are you talking about?” Daniel said.
“I won. I won.” Missy slapped her last card on the discard pile and then clapped her hands. Daniel gave her a thumbs up.
When we finally stopped in the early evening, the three of us practically fell on top of one another getting out of the camper.
“Wow,” Missy said.
“I told you,” Daniel said.
Just beyond the clearing, the rainforest rose up with towering black bark trees that crowded out the sky. Their thick exposed roots overlapped one another and spread out like giant tentacles. There were huge ferns the size of bushes. Ancient palm trees, two stories tall, were supported by a half a dozen stilt-like roots that looked as if they could walk. There was only one word to describe it. Prehistoric.
Daniel beat his fists against his chest like Tarzan as he let out a cry announcing our arrival. Forested birds answered with aw-ka-ah-ka calls, wee-hir-wee whistles, intermittent low-pitched screeches, and high-piercing tweets.
Missy’s smile was so wide her chubby cheeks turned bright red.
Uncle Jack laughed as if Daniel’s ritual upon returning here was nothing new.
The damp air prickled my skin, and I flattened my body against the side of the camper.
“What’s that?” I said, pointing at the back tire where a tiny creature scurried away.
“Where?” Missy asked, her eyes widening in excitement.
“I don’t see anything?” Daniel said.
“Over there,” I said. But it was gone.
“Simon, it’s probably just a Pseudomys higginsi,” Uncle Jack said, propping his portable army green propane grill on a tree stump.
“Oh, that’s nothing, just a long-tailed mouse,” Daniel said, gathering small sticks and putting them in a pile.
Missy, who was examining the veins of a giant leaf, said, “Daniel, we had a pet white mouse. Didn’t we, Simon?”
“It was your pet mouse, not mine.”
“Yes, it was mine. But it died. Why did it die, Simon?”
“Now let’s not talk about dying. Missy, I’m going to make us a barbie,” Uncle Jack said.
“A barbie?” Missy’s face squished for a second before exclaiming, “A barbecue. I can’t wait to tell mom we had a barbie.”
“Daniel, why don’t you show your cousins around.”
“Uh? You’re not coming with us?” I said.
“You’re not scared. Are you, Simon?” Daniel asked.
“Oh, no, I was…I just wanted to make sure Missy’s okay.”
“I’m not scared,” Missy said.
“Don’t worry, Simon. Daniel knows the way, I’ve taken him here many times.”
Daniel led us down a path along a stream that I’d learned Uncle Jack had widened over time. The sun slanted in between dense trees, turning the moss-covered boulders and small rocks, edging the running water, fluorescent green. We walked under a canopy of trees as the wind rustled their leaves; I didn’t know whether it was a greeting or warning.
“Will we see lions?” Missy asked.
Daniel pivoted around. “Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!” Then he lunged like a lion at Missy, who squealed and smiled, before we continued our walk, stepping over bulging roots and dunking low-hanging branches.
“Hey, Daniel, exactly what kind of animals are out here?”
“Oh, the usual. Wombats. Possums. If we’re lucky a quoll.”
“A troll?” Missy frozen in place.
Daniel deepened his voice. “No. A quoll. A cousin of the Tasmanian devil.”
“The Tasmanian devil?” Missy grabbed ahold of me, but I held her tighter.
“Ha! Nothing to be frightened of. They just make a lot of noise. Animals here hide. They don’t like people.”
“I wanna see a Tasmanian devil,” Missy said, freeing herself from me sooner than I wanted.
After that, we walked without talking. Missy peered around giant tree trunks and thick vegetation, trying to spot a wild animal, while I wanted my heart to stop racing.
When we passed a bend in the stream, I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to imagine something peaceful, like swimming in a lake at summer camp. But a shriek, followed by sharp twills, broke my concentration. Whistles and squeals followed. It was impossible to locate the animal calls and the randomness annoyed me. Then, strangely enough, the sounds reminded me of my school band warming up. Loud. Out of tune. Chaotic. The racket became the musical instruments of the forest. A caw-caw here, a whee-wheen there, and a twirlip who knows where. Sometime later, though, I heard the best sound of all—Uncle Jack shout, “Meal time.”
When we arrived, Uncle Jack turned off the grill’s propane tank, releasing a hiss from the flame as it was extinguished. He’d set up a folding table with red metal cups filled with water, enamel plates, forks with bent prongs, and knives that looked like they had been used to pry open jars. Missy grabbed a dented cup from the table and drank up.
“Come and get it,” Uncle Jack said.
Each of us grabbed a plate and piled on two grilled sausages and fried potatoes. We sat in canvas folding chairs and ate like we hadn’t eaten in days.
After we finished, Missy searched under the camper and around the back, looking, I assumed, for that crazy named mouse. Daniel formed a circle of rocks for our evening camp fire and then headed into the forest.
“Daniel, stay close and watch what you’re grabbing,” Uncle Jack said.
I gathered dishes to help Uncle Jack clean up. “You been here a lot?” I asked, watching Uncle Jack scrub plates.
“My favorite spot. Even better in the morning light.”
“How come you never took us here before?”
“‘Cause, you and Missy weren’t old enough. I still wasn’t sure about Missy until I noticed how you looked after her at the diner.”
“What makes this place so special?”
Uncle Jack let go of the dish and it sank into the soapy water. “Hard to explain. Sometimes a place burrows into you so deep that it becomes part of what you’re made of.” He wiped his hands along his jeans and sat on the stump. “This place kept me sane in Nam. I’d imagine the faint mint scent of Eucalyptus trees, and I was right back here. Safe. Alive. Home.” Uncle Jack relaxed his shoulders and let out a deep sigh. “Out here,” he continued, “I’m connected to who I am but also to something bigger.”
Uncle Jack’s body went rigid when he got up. “It’s not easy for some people, even those who say they love you…,” he said, as he dried the plates, loudly clacking one against the other as he stacked them, “to understand how a place can have this kind of hold on you.”
“Dad said you were a war hero.”
“When one person still dies, you’re no hero.” Uncle Jack stashed the dishes inside the camper, ending our conversation.
Daniel returned clutching small broken branches. Then Missy came running from around the far side of the camper, her face flushed.
“Hey, Daniel, guess what I saw? I saw a wild animal,” Missy said.
Daniel dropped the kindling. “No.”
“I did,” Missy continued with the seriousness and thrill of someone about to share the biggest discovery of mankind. “I went into the forest, not far, and it didn’t see me right away. I was really, really quiet. Oh, Daniel, it was really cool. It looked like a striped dog.”
“There are no striped dogs out here.” Daniel laughed. “Are there, Dad?”
“Well, now,” Uncle Jack said.
“Prove it to me. What color were the stripes?” Daniel asked.
“Hey, that’s not fair,” I said. “She doesn’t see colors the way we do.”
“Okay then, what kind of stripes?” Daniel folded his arms across his chest.
“I don’t know,” Missy wavered. “Like tiger stripes, I guess.”
“Come on, Dad, there’s nothing out here like that. Tell her.”
“Now, Missy, what did its tail look like?” Uncle Jack asked.
“You don’t believe her, do you? Dad, it was probably a dingo.”
“Its tail?” Missy mused.
“See. She made the whole thing up,” Daniel said.
“It was…it was.” Missy squished her face tight to think. “It went straight out.”
“But—but, that can’t be,” Uncle Jack said.
“I told you,” Daniel said.
“Wait. Why can’t it be?” I asked.
“Because they’re supposed to be extinct,” Uncle Jack said. “The last one supposedly died in the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1936.”
“What died?” I asked, totally confused.
“Why the Tasmanian tiger, of course,” Uncle Jack said.
“I saw a Tasmanian tiger?” exclaimed Missy.
“You did not,” Daniel said.
“I did, too. You believe me, Simon, don’t you?”
“You’re not siding with your baby sister, are you?”
Huh? What? How did I get in the middle?
“Missy, you know what you see isn’t exactly how things look,” I said.
“Why doesn’t anyone believe me?” Missy ran into the camper crying.
Maybe I should go after her. But what would I say? Was it really so bad to want to hang out alone with Uncle Jack and Daniel to hear more about that Tasmanian devil?
“She’s tired. Time for her to go to sleep anyway,” Uncle Jack said, starting our campfire.
“Take a seat, boys, and I’ll tell you a story. You can tell Missy about it in the morning.”
After the fire was blazing, he told us about the thylacine—the scientific name for the Tasmanian tiger, which sounded a lot less scary.
“They called it the Tasmanian tiger because of its stripes. Those stripes are so dark that they provide the perfect camouflage from predators. They’d hide in hollow tree trunks or in a nest of twigs, bark, or ferns and then come out at night to hunt small animals. They were supposedly very shy around people. But what makes this animal such an odd-looking creature, is that it also resembles a dog, but with a tail that sticks straight out.”
“Hey, that’s what Missy told us,” I said.
“Yes, but even people with good eyesight get confused. For years, people thought they saw them, so a zoologist and dairy farmer teamed up to try to spot one. The dairy farmer claimed the Tasmanian tiger was eating its chickens and sheep. The two men installed cameras and got loads of photos. Some claimed the men had captured the image of a Tasmanian tiger, but others said the pictures were fuzzy. And with no further proof, no one believed them. The men finally gave up a few years back.”
“I told you she couldn’t have seen that,” Daniel said.
“Well, now, there are some bushmen who’ll tell you the Tasmanian tiger still exists. They’ll swear they’ve heard its distinct guttural cough-like barks as if talking between members of their pack.”
“What’s that sound like?” I asked.
“A rapid ‘yip-yap’ that repeats over and over again.” Then he demonstrated the yip-yap, yip-yap cry.
“Is that what she saw?” I asked.
“Okay, you two, that’s enough excitement for tonight.” Uncle Jack got up and opened the camper door. “Bedtime.”
Missy was asleep when we came in, lying on her stomach with her curly blond hair spilling over the edge of the fold-down padded couch. Her right foot hung outside the thin sheet. Daniel and his dad slept in the double bed in the back. My legs were too long to sleep lengthwise on the other fold-down couch. I hated standing out by being the tallest kid in my class, and I dreaded the idea of being that new kid in school. But when I covered Missy’s bare foot with the sheet, I realized Uncle Jack didn’t treat me like I stood out or was weak. I was just one of the guys and that felt good.
In the middle of the night, I woke up and Missy was gone. I went outside, hoping to glimpse the beam of Missy’s flashlight, assuming she’d gone out to pee. With my flashlight, I walked around the camper, careful not to venture too far.
“Missy,” I called out softly. Maybe she was squatting behind a nearby bush. “Missy,” I said a little louder. “Missy,” I called out, panic cracking my voice.
I banged my flashlight against the back of the camper.
“What? What’s that?” Uncle Jack and Daniel yelled.
I opened the camper door and said, “Missy’s gone!”
“What are you talking about?” Uncle Jack asked.
“She’s not here. I can’t find her. I looked, but—”
“It’s okay, I’ll find her.” Uncle Jack pulled on his jeans, looped a knife through his belt, threw on a T-shirt, and stuffed a gun down the back of his pants—all in less than fifteen seconds.
He grabbed two flashlights. “Don’t worry.” And bolted out the door.
“What happened?” Daniel asked, half awake.
“I don’t know.”
“This is why girls shouldn’t go camping,” Daniel said, rubbing his eyes.
“Whoa, I’m sorry. She’ll be okay.”
“You don’t know that—”
“I do. That’s my dad out there.” This time, Daniel wasn’t boasting, which only made me angrier, because I would never have a dad like that.
I grabbed the door handle.
“Where are you going?”
“Nowhere,” I said, and left.
Without a flashlight, everything was black. I leaned against the door, hating myself.
I’m such an idiot. I cared more about hanging out with Uncle Jack than taking care of Missy—my family. Uncle Jack is Daniel’s dad, not mine.
The night was eerily quiet. No caws or hoots. Only a few stars overhead. My dad had said stars were made for wishing. How corny, I’d thought. But as my back slid down the side of the camper, and I sat on firm ground, I wished as hard as I could. Missy wouldn’t have gone too far, would she? Why wasn’t Uncle Jack back yet? Then I remembered what Uncle Jack had said. Time, not distance, is what matters, and I prayed.
I had no idea how much time had passed when I spied a flashlight in the distance and heard branches crack. I barely saw Uncle Jack, despite my eyes having adjusted to the night. Was he carrying something? Was that Missy? Was she all right?
“Missy,” I yelled as I stood up, my legs wobbling from sitting for so long. “Uncle Jack.” I wanted to run toward them, but without a flashlight, I was scared. I could fall. Straining to see them, I could make out Missy in his arms, but not whether she was okay. They were too far away. He was walking too slowly. Damn it, if Missy could make it out there, so could I. No long caring if I fell, I ran.
“Missy,” I yelled, tripping.
“She’s okay,” Uncle Jack called out.
But I got up and kept running. She was my sister. I darted around tree roots, pushed branches away from my face, and ignored bushes that brushed against my legs. When I finally reached her, I saw dirt in the crevices of her knuckles, ripped fabric exposing one knee, and mosquito bite welts on her face. But she was smiling. She loved being carried.
“Simon, your sister is a trooper. Found a safe place in the clearing and kept her flashlight on. I swear, she’d have made a damn good rifleman, if they allowed girls. Went out there to prove us all wrong. To find that Tasmanian tiger.”
“But I didn’t see him,” Missy said.
“Weren’t you afraid?” I asked.
“No, it was cool. I want to go back,” Missy said.
When we reached the camper, Uncle Jack set Missy down.
“Uncle Jack, do you think that Tasmanian tiger is really out there?”
“Simon, you’ll have to answer that one yourself. But before you do,” he said, pulling twigs from her hair, “ask yourself, are you willing to tell her it wasn’t worth it?”
Daniel whipped open the camper door, banging it against a peace symbol. “You woke me. What’s going on?”
“Uncle Jack found me. But he found me before I could find the Tasmanian tiger.”
“What? There’s no such thing as—”
“I believe her,” I said, with a surge of defiance and conviction that suddenly made me feel strong.
“Oh, come on,” Daniel said, “you don’t really believe—”
“I do,” I said, and Missy wrapped her arms around me.
I pulled a leaf from her hair and said, “I’m sorry. I never should have doubted you.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. But Uncle Jack gazed at me the way he had when he’d admired Missy and called her a trooper.
“I’d say she’s fair dinkum,” Uncle Jack said.
Missy released her hug and tried to squish her swollen face to think, but she couldn’t. The welts on her cheeks must have hurt, so I asked, “What’s fair dinkum?”
“Means she’s telling the truth.”
“I’m fair dinkum,” Missy said.
As Uncle Jack and I watched Missy repeat the phrase, over and over again until it rolled off her tongue, the air began to feel lighter. I thought it was my imagination until I noticed the sun lifting the darkness. The base of the towering trees were streaked with rays of white and their roots now looked like tiny hilly roads that little critters might playfully run along instead of scary tentacles. The bush-tall ferns bent in the breeze like finger waves. And the animal sounds were once again awakened when Daniel let out his Tarzan cry.
Sylvia Schwartz studied literary fiction at The Writers Studio and One Story in New York. Her stories have appeared in the Potato Soup Journal; Ariel Chart International Literary Journal; Savant-Garde; The Write Launch; Bold + Italic Magazine; Bull & Cross; Edify Fiction; The Airgonaut; The Vignette Review; and The Rain, Party, & Disaster Society. She is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine and can be reached at www.sylviaschwartz.com or @aivlys99.