Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQJuly 11, 2022
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2001
That last Friday afternoon in November, the day Esther went missing, I was supposed to be doing my homework at the desk in my bedroom. We finished early on Fridays—at two thirty—and Mum liked me to get all my work done before the weekend. Everyone in the class had to make a poster about a South American country, and I’d managed to nab Peru. It had been a close thing: one of the Addison twins had gone for it, even though everybody knew how much I loved llamas. I had pictures of them glued to all my schoolbooks. Now, I couldn’t seem to get my pencil drawing of a llama right. He looked cross-eyed, and his legs were stumpy-in- a- bad- way, though I’d copied as carefully as I could from the old issues of National Geographic Mum had brought home from the news agency next to her work. Our fat orange cat, Flea, wound himself through the legs of my chair. I slipped the magazine under the poster paper, but it was too thick; I couldn’t trace the line of the llama with my pencil. Giving up, I headed to the kitchen for a snack.
Flea darted out from under the chair, bending around the door as I opened it. He surged ahead in the hallway and made it to the kitchen before I did. His full name was Mr. Mistoffelees, but “Flea” had been as close as I could get when I was small, and it had stuck. Mum was standing by the wall-mounted phone in the kitchen, the white handset to her ear, her back turned. I walked toward her in bare feet, and Flea pranced ahead, his head tilted back to look up at me.
“Did Esther leave school with you?” Mum asked, covering the phone with her hand.
“Yup.” I walked past her to the sink, took an upturned glass from the drying rack, and filled it with water.
“Which way did you walk?”
“To the church.” How was I going to get something out of the cupboard without Mum noticing?
“And then you split up?”
“Yeah.” Apples gleamed in the bowl on the kitchen counter. If I said I was hungry, Mum would tell me to have one. Groceries were expensive. Especially fresh fruit. Some days, Mum existed on tea and Mint Slice biscuits, but she wanted me to eat “properly.”
Mum was impatient, the phone still covered. “Which way did she go?”
“Left. She always goes left at the church.” I drained the glass.
Mum gave me a long, steady look. “Veronica Elizabeth Thompson, are you sure?”
I shifted on my feet. When I was smaller, I’d thought Elizabeth added after your name meant that you were in trouble. I’d used it on one of my cousins when he’d pinched an Easter egg from my basket at the big hunt we used to do at Pop’s farm every year. Everyone had laughed at me.
I rinsed my glass. “Definitely sure,” I said, reaching for a tea towel. I wiped the glass dry and walked toward the cupboard.
Mum let my words hang for a second, waiting for them to grow into the silence. She tucked a strand of red hair behind her ear. My mum didn’t even have a middle name. She was just Evelyn Thompson. For some reason, only the boys got middle names in her family. Her brother Peter’s middle name was Reginald, which seemed like a punishment in itself. He was my favorite of Mum’s siblings, and I’d been indignant on his behalf when I found out. Flea was rubbing against her leg, but Mum didn’t even look down. On any other afternoon, she’d have scooped him up, cooing to him that he was her furry baby and four-legged child. Or she’d have splayed her hand over her heart, pretending to die of shock at seeing me wash up after myself. Instead, she turned her whole body away and said something I couldn’t hear into the receiver.
I put the glass away. When I sidled back to my room, there was a mini Bounty Bar tucked in the waistband of my underwear.
It’s impossible now to unlink my memories of Esther from each other. Like train cars with their couplings soldered together, each memory of her brings with it another one, surging forward, on and on in a long, clattering line. Since we were small, she’d been there, as important and unremarked as the house you grow up in. Esther’s dad was born in Durton, like my mum, but had no family in common with my family, the Thompsons—always easy to identify thanks to our red hair. She wasn’t related to the Rutherfords, who were wealthy, or the McFarlanes, who were stingy. There were a few Bianchis around—known for being Italian, mainly—but they were older, and their kids had all left Durton already. Esther and I were both only children, which was unusual at our school. Even Lewis was odd because he only had one brother. I enjoyed being an only child much more than Esther did. Wouldn’t you like a little brother or sister? Mum had asked me once. No, thank you, I’d said. Like you were politely declining a cucumber sandwich, Mum recalled with a laugh.
Esther would have loved to have had four or five brothers and sisters, or at least a bunch of cousins, like I did. (If she had, they could’ve walked her home that day.) All I needed, all I ever really wanted, was her. Mum didn’t say much through dinner, didn’t even hassle me to eat my corn. Corn made me think of alien teeth. I was waiting to be excused from the table.
“Esther hasn’t come home from school yet,” Mum said.
I’d already pushed back my chair. The sun was still up, but it was after six. Esther’s mum must’ve been flipping out.
“Ronnie, are you sure she didn’t say she was going to do anything or go somewhere after school? Could she have decided to go to the pool or for a walk?”
We’d gone to the pool the day before, but we never went on Fridays. That afternoon had been stinking; only an idiot would’ve walked anywhere they didn’t have to. Besides, Esther’s dad always went with us to the pool.
We’d walked out the gate with the flood of other year-six girls. What had Esther said to me before she headed off toward her house and I headed to mine? Bye, I guessed. Had she turned to wave after we left each other? Had I?
Esther had got out of playing netball that day because she’d forgotten her runners. She wasn’t pleased like I would’ve been. She’d sat with her head resting on her hands, watching hungrily from the sidelines. As we’d gone our separate ways, I’d made a mental note to try wearing my leather school shoes for the next Sports Day.
“She just went home.” My left foot kicked the wooden bar that ran under the table. “Like always.” Mum seemed to be waiting for more detail. “I waved at her, and she gave a little wave back.” As I said it, the detail solidified in my memory. The wave, faint but certain, like the lines of a traced drawing.
The upright lamp in the corner of the dining room came into focus. I knew what I could do with the llama drawing. I could hold the magazine and cardboard over the opening in the lamp. With light behind it, the image would come through the cardboard. It would look so good that people would think my poster was the best. My thoughts raced ahead, playing out possible conversations, finding the obstacles I’d have to maneuver around. If someone asked if it’d been traced, I’d have to come clean, but if I just said, “I drew it by hand,” that wouldn’t be lying, would it?
Mum didn’t say anything. She nodded to indicate I could leave the table.
Some sort of panic should have taken hold when I was alone in my bedroom. I know it doesn’t make sense. How do I explain why I was so unconcerned that no one knew where my best friend was? That I sat there working on my assignment? All I can say is it felt like someone had said they were having trouble finding the ocean. It was obvious to me that they just weren’t looking hard enough, or in the right places.
The phone rang in the kitchen, and after a short while, Mum came in. “We’re going to go and see Mack. He wants to talk to you.”
I was writing PERU in large bubble letters in the middle of the cardboard. Bubble letters were my specialty.
“About Esther?” I asked.
I didn’t want Mum to see me messing around with the lamp. I’d have to fix the llama on an afternoon when she was at work.
Mum smiled weakly. “Yes, Bup. About Esther.”
Bup was my mum’s nickname for me. Sometimes I called her Mucca. At certain times, like at the start of a long road trip—to visit my auntie Kath who lived in Victoria, maybe—she’d say, “Look at us, Bup and Mucca, off on an adventure.”
Mum’s jaw was all tensed up as we drove to the police station. A vein popped in her neck, like a wiry plastic rod had been inserted under her skin, made of the same stuff they made school skipping ropes with, stiff but bendy. I’d never been inside the police station and had only ever seen Officer Macintyre around town or when he came to the school to talk about stranger danger. My mum called him Mack. He lived next door to the station with his wife, Lacey, who jogged across and let us in when we arrived. We walked past the high desk and into a small kitchen. Lacey pulled a bottle of milk from a tiny fridge and poured some into a mug that said cops are tops. She added five heaped spoonsful of Milo and put the cup in the microwave. Someone at school had told me that Officer Macintyre and his wife couldn’t have children because something was wrong with her. I looked her up and down as she handed me the cup. She was skinny, but so was my mum, and she had me.
Officer Macintyre walked into the room and sat down. “Hi, Evelyn,” he said, nodding at my mum. “Hello, Veronica.”
He smelled of sweat and cologne, and he needed a shave.
“It’s just Ronnie,” I said.
“No worries, Ronnie,” he replied, leaning forward on his forearms and smiling at Mum. “Can you start by telling me what you and Esther did this afternoon?” He said it like when there’s only one lamington left, and you want it, but if you reach for it someone will say that you’re being greedy, so instead you ask casually, Does anyone want this?
He asked the same questions Mum had as I took salty-sweet sips from the Milo. I told him we had netball, that Esther hadn’t played. That we’d split up at the church. She’d seemed normal. What I didn’t, or couldn’t, tell him was that Esther on a normal day still exuded a kind of magic, like she might do anything. She could curl her tongue, she could bend over and place the palm of her hand flat on the ground while keeping her legs straight, she could sing. And she never traced.
“Does Esther like sports?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Is she in trouble?”
Officer Macintyre’s eyes moved to Mum, her chair pushed all the way back out of my line of sight. “No, Ronnie, Esther isn’t in any trouble. Not at all.”
Out the front of the station afterward, Mum put her arms around me and just kind of held me until it got boring and I coughed.
“Bup.” She said the word into the top of my head, hairs moving where her breath touched them. “I want you to go to Uncle Peter’s while I help search.”
“But I wanna come with you.”
I always found Esther when we played hide-and- seek, her dark head bobbing behind some tree, too impatient to stay hidden for long.
“The last thing I need is for you to wander off as well,” Mum said, smoothing my hair with her hand.
My uncle Peter met us at the front of his place. He was Mum’s older brother, and she liked him best; I could tell because he was the only person I knew who really, truly made her laugh, other than me. He smiled his lopsided smile—he’d been slammed into while playing footy in his twenties, and the left side of his face drooped a bit—and pulled her into a hug. When I was little, he’d let me tug at his beard, a goatee that had some white hair in it now. He was wearing a polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of the trucking company he worked for. He walked side by side with Mum to the front door. The red hair on his arms glowed in the sensor light that clicked on as we approached.
“It’s just awful to think about, Pete,” she said. He nodded.
“Shelly’s gone over there.”
Mum had never really hit it off with Esther’s mum, but Constance and my aunt Shelly were good friends. Esther spent a lot of time at my aunt and uncle’s, and she loved the chaos at their place. Esther had the knack of always being herself, unlike me. When I was there, I could tell my aunt Shelly thought I was sly, and when someone thinks that about you, it becomes true. I’d feel myself slinking around the backyard, and when I snuck into the kitchen for a snack, I always seemed to get caught. Not that Aunt Shelly cared, but I could just tell she thought I was a bit spoiled. It wasn’t like that with my uncle. He laughed at my jokes. Once, he made me laugh so hard I farted, which made us both laugh harder, until neither of us could breathe, which was probably lucky because it smelled bad. Another time, he’d brought me back a hat from somewhere on his trucking route that made it look like a sheep was sleeping on your head. I’d worn it every day until Mum said it had got lost in the wash.
My uncle hugged me, tight.
The light was fading as we walked into my uncle’s house. I expected any second to see Esther jump out from behind a fence, eyes rolled back in her head, tongue out, laughing.
She’d been missing for six hours.
Copyright © 2022 by Hayley Scrivenor. All rights reserved.
About Dirt Creek by Hayley Scrivenor:
When twelve-year-old Esther disappears on the way home from school in a small town in rural Australia, the community is thrown into a maelstrom of suspicion and grief. As Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels arrives in town during the hottest spring in decades and begins her investigation, Esther’s tenacious best friend, Ronnie, is determined to find Esther and bring her home.
When schoolfriend Lewis tells Ronnie that he saw Esther with a strange man at the creek the afternoon she went missing, Ronnie feels she is one step closer to finding her. But why is Lewis refusing to speak to the police? And who else is lying about how much they know about what has happened to Esther?
Punctuated by a Greek chorus, which gives voice to the remaining children of the small, dying town, this novel explores the ties that bind, what we try and leave behind us, and what we can never outrun, while never losing sight of the question of what happened to Esther, and what her loss does to a whole town.