TUESDAY, DECEMBER 4, 2001
We were waiting for things to converge.
It was still dark. Even if the sun had been up, we would not have needed to look around us. It was the same dirt, lazily punctuated here and there by dry grass, the same rust-ringed cement water trough close to the fence line, the same white cypress pines that dotted our own families’ properties. A landscape as familiar to us as the backs of our own eyelids. And we knew we’d found the spot again by the smell. It pushed its way into our nose and throat like a rod of twisted tissue rammed so far it hurt. It was the smell of dead lambs left to rot in the sun.
The stitches in the man’s arm tugged as he turned the steering wheel of his ute. From his vantage point in the driver’s seat, the main house was just a smudge in the distance. The sun was coming up now. He was checking the fences after his time away from the farm. If he’d driven just a meter closer to the fence line—a meter was nothing on a property like his—he never would have found it. But the ute’s cab tipped slightly as he drove over soft ground. The man stood in the space created by the open front door of the vehicle, and the smell hit him the same way it had hit us. He walked around the ute and plucked a shovel from the cargo bed. Us kids heard and saw it all. The man’s labored breathing was interrupted only by the occasional shink of the shovel in soil. We watched his face as he winced in pain. We took note of the angle of his shoulders as the blade hit something that did not give, something that was not dirt or a root. We saw him crouch to scoop away earth with one hand, running his fingers along shiny black plastic. It was four days since anyone, including us, had seen Esther Bianchi.
The sun was properly up now. Sweat dripped into his eyes, trickled down his spine. We saw him blink. He stood back, used the shovel to sweep dirt from the edge of the hole. There were only five or six inches of earth on top of the package, which seemed to be much longer than it was wide. The plastic was slippery in his hands.
* * *
Later, the police would admonish the man for moving the body. As soon as he suspected what he had found, he should have called someone.
“And what if it was just a calf or somethin’, and I called you and you came for nothing?” the man would say, eyebrows pulled high into his forehead.
Why would a calf be wrapped in black plastic? the female detective would think but not say.
* * *
The man yanked the package with his good arm. The earth gave the parcel up, and he fell back, his leg bending awkwardly beneath him. He scrambled away, his stitches pulling, pain unfurling like a flower. He stood and looked toward the distant house before stepping forward. The man unwrapped the plastic, ignoring the pain in his arm, retching at the smell. When the parcel’s contents came into view, the man turned away, hand held to his mouth.
What does it all mean? For now, we can only tell you that we were there, that we watched blood seep through the man’s sleeve as he walked away from Esther Bianchi’s body and looked around him, as if the answer might be found somewhere in the open field.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 2001
Once, Esther tickled me so much that I wet myself. We were at her house, in her backyard.
“Stop, Esther!” I said, laughing through pain.
“No mercy!” she cried.
She was the villain when we played, the person who moved the story forward while I fussed over details. We were eight years old.
I’d fallen to the ground in a patch of dirt. Esther was on top of me. So many years ago now, but I remember the way the laughing-pain swelled as she dug her fingers into the soft dough of my belly. It went on and on, like when you jump in the deep end of the pool and you’re waiting, waiting to reach the bottom so you can use it to push up to the surface. I looked down, saw the wetness spreading across my sports shorts before I felt it. Esther saw it, too. I shuffled away from her on my bum. I was too big to be weeing my pants.
I’ll never forget what she did then. She stood and took a step back. I waited for her to scream or make fun of me. Instead, I saw amber liquid trickle past the hem of her netball skirt and down the inside of her long leg. The white skin was bruised: dusted with little purple and brown marks like the rump of a dappled horse. Her white school socks bloomed with a stain the color of her kitchen curtains—a buttercup yellow.
She grinned and grabbed the hose, turning the tap on full bore and weaponizing the stream with her fingers. We wrestled for it, squealing. My embarrassment washed away, dust swirling on the surface of the spreading pool of water before it soaked into the earth.
Esther’s mum, Constance, made us strip at the back door, shaking her head. She gave me one of her shirts to wear home. It was so long it reached past my knees, like a dress, and I wore no underwear beneath it. Constance hadn’t thought to lend me some of Esther’s, and I hadn’t asked. I remember the shuddering thrill as I sat in the back of Esther’s dad’s ute, nothing between the seat and me but thin white cotton. I always loved being driven home by Steven, as he insisted I call him. When I was alone with him, I could pretend I was his daughter and we were going somewhere. He never talked that much, but he seemed to enjoy listening to me. I’d have done almost anything to make him laugh. I could never tell my mum how much I liked him; she always seized up when I asked who my father was. It was something else Esther had pulled off that I couldn’t—a father—but I didn’t begrudge her. She deserved a dad who was strong, who’d lift her up and spin her around. A dad who loved her like I did.
* * *
My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. She only ever called me Ronnie. I didn’t fit the grown-woman name I’d been given. The glamorous syllables of Ve-ron-i-ca had nothing to do with me. We were twelve years old when she went missing. I was bossy and solid, shorter than Esther but determined to dictate the terms of our play, the kid who would assign roles when we pretended to be Power Rangers at recess, stomping off in a huff if other kids had their own ideas. But a lot of the time, I wasn’t getting my own way with Esther so much as saying out loud what she’d already decided she wanted to do. She would hurtle into a room, tongue sticking out, and leap so she landed with her knees bent and legs wide apart. She’d roll her eyes into the back of her head and say, “Rah!” at peak volume before streaking out of the room again. I needed things from people, and Esther didn’t, not really, and I think that’s why I was drawn to her.
It was no surprise Esther’s mum thought I was a bad influence. But anything cheeky, and everything funny, started with Esther. Sometimes I only had to look at her—from the corner of my eye at an assembly, in the changing room of the local pool, from across the low tables we had in kindergarten—and I would start laughing. We were always laughing, and I was always running behind, trying to make it look like I was the leader.
* * *
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.
Copyright © 2022 by Hayley Scrivenor