Winner, 2023 State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award
GIRRAWEEN GROVE WAS a spectre of streetlights and Twigs was twenty-past-midnight late. I watched Spook kicking a clump of grass. Somewhere, a possum was gurgling from trees still shaking off rain. Spook kicked until dirt spilled onto his shoes.
‘Quit it,’ Dingo told him.
Spook didn’t look up. ‘Where is he?’
‘He’s coming. I said quit it, Spooky.’
‘What does it matter?’
Dingo exhaled through his nose. He was all fever tonight, hands in his pockets, body like breath before a fight. He nodded at Spook’s shoes. ‘They’ll get muddy.’
‘You’ll leave tracks.’
‘Use your brain, runt.’
Spook opened his mouth and closed it again.
The trees lining the street rustled up an orchestra. I pulled my hoodie cuffs into my palms. Down the street, a toad croaked dryly. I’d seen two others already tonight. It felt wrong to leave them unpopped, to walk on as they hiccupped away. But we’d hunted amphibians when we were kids. Tonight we were something else.
Twigs arrived forty-five minutes late, loping up to the three of us.
‘The fuck, Twigs?’ Spook said.
‘My sister,’ Twigs managed between huffs, ‘was up late. Took ages.’
‘Did you get them?’ Dingo asked.
‘Waited till she was asleep. I was fully like a ninja, all quiet and shit.’ Twigs pulled out the bobby pins.
Dingo grinned. ‘Bloody legend.’
Spook turned away to look down the street. ‘Let’s go then, if you’re done stalling.’
‘What? I wasn’t stalling, shortstack.’
‘Took your sweet time. Go home if you’re scared.’
Dingo looked at me. ‘Are you scared, Smidge?’
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Nah.’
‘There you go,’ Dingo announced. ‘If Smidge says it’s good, then it’s good.’
Twigs held up the bobby pins. ‘Can you really pick a lock with these, Smidge?’
I took them from him, turned them over in the streetlight. ‘Yeah. These’ll work fine.’
Dingo clapped my shoulder with one hand and Twigs’s with the other, pulling us together so we were close and infected by his electricity. Dingo was irresistible like this, all teeth and nerve. He let out a howl, rising above the rooftops. We whooped and shoved his shoulders. Then we ran. Off the pavement and down the street, all in black, hoods hounding our necks. This was how I’d told Dingo we should dress.
We tore up Grevillea along the Flats, our territory. During the week, the Marist Flats were sun-crisp, domed by sky and flecked with boys in uniform. At night they were a low-lit apocalypse.
Eventually we stopped running. Twigs jogged to catch up.
I caught Dingo peering into the homes. Silhouettes were haloed by windows. A television blared technicolour. Some of the houses looked like Spook’s place.
Dingo muttered, ‘Seems cosy for seven figures.’
He was right. The properties around here cost one mil minimum.
‘Tossers,’ Twigs offered. This made us laugh, mostly for the eager and uncertain way he’d said it. Pleasing Dingo when he was in this mood felt like touching a powerline. We all knew it.
‘They’re dogs,’ I said, because I knew it would mean Dingo turning to me.
‘Smidgy,’ he sang.
I smirked and said nothing, feeling the others’ eyes.
Dingo’s house was out Keperra way. It was the last house on a greying cul-de-sac, ruled by tetanus and peeling Queenslanders.
He was a bursary student. Like me, like Twigs.
He’d told me because he was over one day when Mum walked in. Sometimes, during the day, my mother would come home smelling of gin and walking into walls. The reappearances were never quiet. It was worse when Dad was home, which he’d been that day.
‘My dad’s like that sometimes,’ Dingo told me after it was over. Then he’d told me about the Old Boys’ Bursary. How his father and grandfather had come before him.
Spook liked us for Dingo’s fervour. The rest of us liked each other because we felt the same itch walking through Marist’s heritage towers. Hot and noxious, self-conscious as longing. It felt silly, like our irritation was wrong or we were imagining hardship out of opportunities. But still the itch refused to be scratched.
‘Alright, mongrels,’ Dingo said as we reached the end of the Flats. ‘Time to shut up.’
We stared up the road. Night clamped tight around plastered houses, hanging over bitumen and trees.
‘Stealth mode,’ Twigs said, because we’d been standing for a while and the street had gone quiet. ‘Too easy.’
‘We’re gonna be legends,’ Spook whispered. I thought of the afternoon Dingo told him the plan, the four of us kicking up creek beds after school. How Spook had said the same thing then. The rest of us had listened, poking through the underbrush for toads. I knew Dingo would let him boast. Legends were made of news stories and souvenirs. Schoolboys like Spook were made of lies.
‘Hoods up,’ Dingo told us. ‘Don’t lift your heads and don’t make noise.’
We adjusted our hoods and looked at each other. Shadows in the shape of boys. We turned off Grevillea and started climbing the avenue to the house.
Ashgrove’s heritage mansion.
No one I had talked to knew who lived there. But every local, every passerby, every Marist boy knew the grandeur of this house.
I was the first one Dingo had told. He’d pulled me aside at lunch, asked what I thought of breaking into the Ashgrove mansion. I’d said I’d look into it.
‘You’re the best, Smidgy. You get it, right?’
I did. I’d already begun imagining it. How it might feel. Like knowing a secret about someone who’s smirking at you. Knowing they would never realise. Maybe that was how the owners felt, watching the world through panelled windows.
‘I walk past it every day. Always wondered, you know?’ Dingo’s lips had crooked up. ‘If I’d ever get inside a place like that. Maybe when I’m fixing their toilet.’
Now, we waded through the inky street. I was right behind Dingo, so I heard his breathing change when the house came into view.
A wrought-iron gate towered over the ground. Moon-silver gardens of grass and rosebushes. Gazebos, guesthouses, tennis courts. The house. It slumbered with its balconies like closed teeth. Pillars and shingles rose into chimneys. A river of driveway pooled up to the front door.
I’d spent a lot of time thinking about that front door.
We shuffled closer. Dingo led the way, walking the perimeter. The Kerberos Security CCTV sign reflected the streetlight. I could write a report on that company, their product descriptions.
There were three main problems with the Ashgrove mansion. The first was the security cameras. The second was the dogs. Bull-mastiffs. Bred to protect. This worried me, but not as much as the alarms.
‘How do you even know there are alarms?’ Dingo had asked, leaning against the lockers.
‘The house,’ I’d said.
Dingo had nodded. ‘Rich pooches. So, can we do it?’
Spook’s family had a Kerberos system. He’d said their alarm was disarmed if they used the key. I hadn’t carried a key in years.
I’d faced Dingo. ‘If we’re caught, we’ll lose the bursaries. Get expelled. Arrested.’
He hadn’t flinched.
‘We can do it. But it will be hard.’
Dingo had grinned.
We stopped where the trees grouped beyond the gate. I’d passed this spot on my bike just a few hours ago, pulling up to call over the dogs and slip laced mince through the metal.
Dingo gazed through the iron, his face a mess of shadows. He gestured for someone to give him a boost. Twigs and I hoisted him onto the gate. He swung his legs over, avoiding the spires, and dropped to the other side.
Spook followed, then me. Twigs gave me the last boost and I clambered over, weaving between finials.
From inside the gate, the street was crossed by black iron. Twigs stood on the roadside, twisting his hands.
Dingo was phantom still. ‘Twigs.’
Twigs didn’t move.
I realised with some thrill that I didn’t know what would happen. I didn’t think any of us did. We watched, motionless, in vivid fascination.
Twigs did nothing for a long time. Finally, he climbed up the gate, skinny limbs breezing over the spires. Then he was beside us, not looking at Dingo.
But Dingo’s expression had already changed. He turned back to the house. It breathed the language of cathedrals.
‘No more talking,’ Dingo whispered.
Spook elbowed Twigs. ‘Told ya you were scared.’
Dingo rounded on him. ‘What did I just say? This isn’t a game.’
Usually, this was enough to shut Spook up. Tonight it wasn’t.
‘I’m not playing any game, Dingo.’
‘Don’t be an idiot,’ Dingo gritted out. ‘No one speaks.’ Then he was stalking through the trees. We followed.
I felt the gaze of cameras like a second layer of skin. Spook said theirs weren’t motion sensitive. He said his dad didn’t check the overnight feed unless he had a reason.
Dingo led us to the patio and looked at me.
Above the eggshell steps was the door. It was ebony, or oak, or mahogany. I could see the lock. I was already imagining the weight of that click.
Then I heard the snuffle.
Slumped on the welcome mat were the bull-mastiffs.
My heartbeat bloomed on my tongue. I had hoped they’d have a kennel in which to sleep off my mother’s tranquilisers. But here they were. I glanced at Dingo, saw his question.
I started climbing the patio steps, moving in increments. I had never been so quiet. I had never kept my chest so still.
It took a long time to reach the dogs. There were three of them, snoring out of sync. I lifted my foot over bellies to touch my shoe to the welcome mat. I waited, waited. The dogs slept on. My ankle was centimetres from fur.
I counted to ten. Then I raised my foot over a snout. One more step and I’d be aligned with the lock. My foot was midair when the dog’s legs moved, jostling in sleep. My heart crashed like breakers. My sinews shivered.
I touched my toe to the ground beside a paw. When I pulled out the bobby pins, my fingers were shaking. Slowly, I bent the spokes and slipped the pins into the keyhole.
My dad had taught me how to pick a lock. When my mother went out, she was supposed to leave her key under the pot plant. Our landlord wouldn’t let us make copies. Dad and I sat her down every weeknight, explaining how important it was she didn’t leave with the key. She’d nod and roll her eyes, then the next day she would forget. I’d get home after school and find the house locked.
After a while, Dad had put some hairpins under the pot plant. He’d showed me how to bend them, how to slide them inside a keyhole and find the knobs within.
I coaxed the pin heads between the lock. It was much sturdier than ours. The bobby pins I used would have snapped, but Twigs’s sister had thick, long pins for thick, long hair. I felt sweat building on my upper lip. Soon it would drip onto fur and fang.
The click, when it came, was a flicker of moth wings, puzzle pieces fitting together.
It was so, so loud.
I waited for the dogs to stir. They remained asleep. I eased the door ajar, counting down the seconds and waiting for an alarm.
It didn’t come. And it didn’t come.
My eyes closed briefly. The leg I was leaning on had started to tremble. My lungs were wine glasses flush against my ribs.
I stepped across the final splay of paws. The house’s darkness crooked its limbs around me. When I turned to the others, they were grinning. One by one, they trailed my footsteps up the patio.
It felt like hours before we were all past the dogs. When Twigs was through, Dingo squeezed the door shut behind him.
Darkness gaped. I was beginning to think there was nothing to focus on, that we’d stepped into the open artery of outer space. Then I saw the shapes. A cascading waterfall I realised was a staircase. Suspended ballgowns like chandeliers. Gleaming onyx fragments that were framed mirrors.
The Ashgrove mansion.
We turned to Dingo, listening to him inhale the cold marble. He smiled at us. It should have struck the rafters with lightning.
He led us into the house’s anatomy.
Furniture lay in colourless angles. The rooms creaked with our heartbeats. On every shelf and cabinet there was the glint of crystal. Vases, glasses, figurines. I was within heritage walls, knowing I would see only a portion of the lower floor, and I just kept staring at the glass. If it smashed, it wouldn’t sound like the rain of my mother’s champagne flutes. It would be a crack.
My organs itched.
We found ourselves once more in the foyer. It was done. We were theftless thieves, tourists taking a lap. The owners would never know to check their cameras. For the rest of my life, I could walk down this street and know I had been here. I could meet the owners, shake their hands, knowing what they didn’t.
Dingo paused. For a moment, my blood sang with the thought that he’d try to go upstairs. Then I followed his gaze behind us and understood.
Spook wasn’t here.
Dingo prowled back into the hall, leading us through liquorice-tinted rooms.
We found Spook by a cabinet. He was staring at something on the shelf. He didn’t glance up, though he had to have felt Dingo’s glare. Instead, he tapped a finger against the wood.
Dingo’s shoulders were wire-taut. Twigs stood beside me, drinking in the voltage.
Spook lifted a goblet from the shelf. It was crystal, that icy glass. He looked up. I was expecting him to cringe when he faced Dingo.
Spook raised the goblet. Then he spoke.
‘What’s the point,’ he murmured, ‘if no one believes us?’
I knew what he wanted. If this became legend, Marist boys would be talking about tonight long after we graduated. About us.
Dingo said nothing.
We waited for Spook’s gaze to waver. We waited for him to put down the glass.
Dingo whispered, ‘Spook.’
Spook dropped the goblet.
The sound was a car crash. The sound was snapping bone. The sound was the pop of a toad’s croaking body.
Dingo lunged at Spook and they went tumbling to the ground. Twigs began to laugh, bubbling and erratic, expression wide as his hands clamped his mouth. That was when I heard it.
I breathed, ‘The dogs.’
They went still. We listened to claws scraping wood. Then, barking.
Dingo shot up. ‘Back door.’
He started running. We raced after him. I jumped when I heard another crash, then saw Spook take a candlestick as a bat. He swung at shelves as he ran, picking up figurines and pitching them at walls. Twigs ducked his head as shards showered over him. He ran dead into a table, sending a china lamp shuddering over the edge. I took him by the collar and hauled him along.
But I was grinning.
I couldn’t stop grinning.
Dingo found a back door and we flew through, pelting across the gardens towards the gate. Spook released a bellow. The barking ripped through his voice, coming from behind us.
We were being chased.
Dingo threw himself at the gate and we scrambled after him. Teeth caught the hem of my jeans. I tore my leg away and tumbled over the spires.
Then came the sirens.
I was peeling away from the kerb when I heard Twigs. He was still inside the gate, gurgling as the dogs tore into him.
Dingo hurled himself up the gate and took Twigs by the armpits. He dragged him up, the dogs dangling from skinny limbs. They both collapsed onto the footpath.
I took Twigs and pulled him upright, looping his arm over my shoulders. Blood trickled down his sleeves. Dingo rolled onto his hands and knees.
‘Smidge,’ he said.
Spook was running, already in the distance. His feet pounded the bitumen.
‘I’m sorry.’ Dingo’s voice broke. ‘I’m so sorry.’
I started to reply, then saw red-and-blue flashing through the trees. ‘We need to run.’
Dingo took Twigs’s other arm and we lurched down the road, streetlights beaming like spotlights above us. Twigs slumped and we dragged him upright. Possums cackled at us from the powerlines. Somewhere out of sight, I could hear a toad croaking.
The Ashgrove dogs howled.