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Authors: Brian Caswell

Mike

Mike

Brian Caswell was born in Wales. When he was twelve his family emigrated to Australia. He became a rock musician in the 1970s and later a high school teacher specialising in history, English and creative writing. He is also a dedicated basketball player and coach.

Merryll of the Stones
, Brian Caswell's first novel, was named Honour Book of the Year. He followed this with A Dream of Stars, a collection of unpredictable and thoughtprovoking short stories. His second novel,
A Cage of Butterflies
, was shortlisted for the 1993 CBCA Book of the Year Award.

In 1995
Deucalion
won the Children's Peace Literature Award, the Aurealis Speculative Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the CBCA Book of the Year Award.

Since then he has written
Asturias
, a novel set around the rock music industry, Only the Heart, a novel he co-wrote with David Phu An Chiem looking at the lives of Vietnam refugees and a wacky novel for younger readers,
Relax Maxi
In 1998 he launched his
Alien Zones
sci-fi series following the adventures of seven friends in all the known universes, with its own web site: www.alienzones.com

Mike
is the first book in his
Boundary Park
series followed by Lisdalia and completed by
Maddie
.

Brian has always had a strong interest in film, and he is now moving into the area of screenwriting.

The Childrens Book Council of Australia has listed Brian's published novels as Notable Australian Books. He is one of Australia's most popular writers for young people.

Also by Brian Caswell

Merryll of the Stones

A Dream of Stars (
short stories
)

A Cage of Butterflies

Deucalion

Dreamslip

Asturias

Only the Heart

The View From Ararat

Storybridge series

Lisdalia

Maddie

RelaxMax!

Alien Zone series
teedee and the collectors or how it all began
messengers of the great orf
gladiators in the holo-colosseum
gargantua
what were the gremholzs' dimensions again?
whispers of the shibboleth

For the real Riny and Tony — my valued friends, who always remember such wonderful stories. Thank you.

This novel was written during my time as Writer in Community with the Liverpool and Parramatta City Libraries.

I would like to thank: the Literature Board of the Australia Council for their support of the project; the State Library of New South Wales and James Hardie Industries for their organisation of the “Write to Read” programme, under which the project was developed; Margaret Burke and Wilma Norris at the State Library Education Service for their help and support for a period much longer than the few weeks of this particular project; Marion, Linda and everyone in the Children's andYoung Adults' Sections at Liverpool and Parramatta. You made me feel welcome, provided the assistance, the environment (and the morning teas!) and you cared about the project. The kids don't know how lucky they are. — And, as always, my family, for the inspiration they provide and the patience they show.

Contents

1      
EXILE

2      
THE VIEW FROM THE WINDOW

3      
VICTIM MATERIAL

4      
DUTCH COFFEE

5      
SHANE “THE PAIN”

6      
THE DOG'S TAIL

7      
A DEAL

8      
IN TRAINING

9      
… AND LIZARDS

10      
MOST PEOPLE

11      
A VISIT WITH ROWLEY

12      
TUMBLE TURN

13      
A SORT-OF-SMILE

14      
ABOUT WINNING…

15      
THE “FUN” PART

16      
A DIFFERENT KIND OF WATER…

17      
JUMP!

18      
ANOTHER REASON

19      
SUDDEN REVELATIONS

20      
SOMETIMES…

21      
ME

22      
NOTHING TO LOSE

23      
BUT NOT COMPLETELY

24      
THE FIRST OF MANY

1
EXILE

“He was old, Mike.” My mother was trying to look strong. Adults are like that. They'll tell you it's good to “let it out”, not to hold things inside when they hurt. But they don't follow their own advice. “It had to happen one day … ”

I think she realised I wasn't taking much notice of her. She sort of trailed off, like I do when I'm trying to sell a really weak excuse, and I realise no one's buying it.

Why did it have to happen? Who makes up the rules?

I couldn't say it out loud, she wouldn't understand. How could she?
She
wasn't twelve years old. And Sandy wasn't
her
dog. Not really.

She liked to tell people he was. That she fed him and brushed him and cut the knots out of his hair when he rolled in the bindies. But that didn't make him hers. I did all those things too. Maybe not all the time. But I was his friend. And he was mine. I could talk to him; tell him things I couldn't tell anyone else — not even her.

How do you explain to your mother that your best friend is an old dog?

Okay, I said it.

He was old. Perhaps it did “have” to happen. But did she think telling me that made it any easier to take? No wonder I'd rather talk to Sandy. At least he understood me.

Don't get me wrong. I love my mother. I really do. Dad too, even though I don't get to see him all that much. He's “Navy”. All my life, from the time I can remember anything, there had been three things that never changed. Sandy, Mum. And Dad going away.

It's funny. I never seem to remember him coming home; only going. How do you figure that? I mean, think about it. He'd have had to come home at least as often as he went away. It's just that I don't remember.

Now Sandy had gone away, too. Permanently. And I couldn't cry. I just sat there in silence, and played with my food, while my mother talked at me, trying to sound comforting.

I hadn't cried for years … well, months. Not since we'd moved from Middleton to here. Crying hadn't done any good then — we still ended up moving — so I figured it was just a waste of time. I bottled everything up, and I told al my problems to a dog.

Dogs make perfect friends. They listen, they don't talk back or give you useless advice. And they let you rub their ears; which is about the best way I know to get rid of what's bugging you.

Now, I couldn't even do that!

But I didn't want another dog. It didn't seem right. You don't just go down to the store and buy a friend.

It's … disloyal.

* * *

Middleton is in Victoria. I was born there. I'd lived there all my life until a few months ago. I wanted to keep on living there. But I didn't get any choice. I was twelve years old — and two days — when we moved. We. Mum and me. Dad was away — as usual. But we were quite used to doing things on our own, so a little move from Melbourne to Sydney was no problem.

At least, not to Mum. “You know we're just doing what's best for you,” she said. As if she really believed it. So, how come I never got a say in “what's best” for me? What was I, a twelve-year-old vegie?

She was talking about the future. About “preparing”. “Your father gets out in a couple of years,'' she said.

She made it sound like a jail sentence, not the navy. And couldn't we “prepare” just as easily in Middleton? Apparently not.

But at least I'd still had Sandy. He had a terrible trip up. Stuck in the back of the old station-wagon all the way, whimpering and scratching. I knew how he felt. In some ways, I don't think he ever really recovered. He was fourteen years old; pretty ancient for a dog; and he'd lived the whole of his life in the one house. The move must have been a major shock to his system.

Whatever the reason, suddenly, he was gone, and I was here.

And every day at school I had to face Shane Thomas.

2
THE VIEW FROM THE
WINDOW

Riny sat behind the glass of the wide bay window and watched the street. In particular, she watched the young boy in front of the house opposite.

He was poking a stick into the gap between the columns of the veranda. Concrete columns the previous owner had painted — badly — in an almost-beige colour which didn't suit the house at all.

The boy seemed quite intent on what he was doing. He was always so serious. In the months since he had moved into the house with his mother, she could barely remember a smile on his face. It wasn't good for a youngster to be so unhappy.

Maybe he was lonely too.

Riny looked around the small room. Tony's special room. It was unchanged. She had left it exactly the way he had left it on the day he …

She closed her eyes and pushed the thought away. It didn't pay to think about it. She had trained herself to remember the good times, the years they had shared, the love. Not the terrible loneliness of the last months. Not the empty future stretching out before her.

The boy had stopped his poking. He tossed the stick into the vacant block next door, turned and went back into the house. He moved slowly, and his shoulders drooped. Sadly, she shook her head.

No, it wasn't good.

She sensed the movement beside her and looked down. Into a pair of huge, liquid-brown eyes.

“And what do you want?” She smiled and stroked the young dog gently behind the ears. “You always seem to know, don't you, Gretch?”

The dog took a small step forward, laid its head in the old woman's lap, licked her hand once and began to wag its tail, thumping it gently into the side of the chair.

3
VICTIM MATERIAL

The phone rang just as I finished scraping the wasps' nest from between the columns on the veranda. When we first moved into the house, there was a big nest up near the eaves, where the downpipe joins the gutter. Mum had a man get rid of that one, but the wasps kept coming back and finding new places to build. They were mud-wasps, the guy said. They built their nests out of mud and saliva. Hundreds of tiny round cells, where they laid their eggs and hatched their babies. You had to watch them he said, or you could get overrun. I reckoned he was just looking for more business. There's a lot of competition in pest-controlling.

Anyway, the phone call.

It was Shane Thomas. He's a jerk and a bully, and he was just phoning to remind me that he'd be waiting for me tomorrow.

As if I could forget.

I don't know why he chose me to pick on; he had the whole school. There wasn't a single kid in sixth grade who could come close to him in a fight.

Or in the pool.

He had one of
those
mothers. You know, huge and loud and pushy. The type that stands on the sideline at kids' football matches yelling, “Kill him! Rip his arms off!” Stuff like that.

Except that Shane Thomas never played football. He swam. She took him to the pool at six o'clock every morning and he trained for a couple of hours before school. It's probably the reason why his shoulders looked like a scene from “Terminator 3”. Still, I could imagine her standing next to the pool at one of his swimming comps. What do you yell at swimming comps to scare the opposition? Surely not “Rip his arms off!” Whatever it is, I could imagine her yelling it. I suppose she was the reason he turned out to be the way he was. Someone
had
to take the blame.

Lisdalia Petrantonio, the smartest kid in the whole school, maybe even the universe, said it was “genetic”. I asked her what that meant and she looked at me as if I'd just slithered out from under a large rock. I seem to have that effect on the girls up here. Funny, I never seemed to have any problem back home.

So, what was I going to do?

I couldn't fight him. If I wanted to commit suicide, I'd jump off the nearest cliff; it'd be less painful and much less embarrassing.

For a similar reason, I couldn't try showing him up as stupid in front of the rest of the school. I mean he was. Stupid. The dumbest kid in the whole grade — except maybe for Aaron Herbert, but Aaron was hurt in a car accident when he was five, and he just … forgot things. Besides, Aaron was a really nice kid, always smiling and friendly; do anything for you. The only thing Shane Thomas would do for you was help you finish your lunch on time, or make sure that your wallet wasn't too heavy for you to carry.

I hated him. For me, he was a symbol of everything that was wrong with Sydney. My parents certainly had a strange idea of what was best for me.

It was about then that I hit on “the Plan”.

It was simple really. Most great ideas are. Shane picked on me because he could get away with it. Just about everyone else in the school had been there since the first day of kindergarten. They all had their groups and they supported each other. I was new, and I hadn't exactly gone out of my way to make friends, so I was on my own. Victim material. The more I backed down from him, the bigger victim I became, and the less support I could expect from anyone.

So I had to beat him at something. In front of the whole school. Something that didn't involve getting my face redesigned.

Swimming.

The carnival was over of course. They always had that in first term. But there was still the end of the year. Halfway through fourth term, the whole school had “Water Awareness”, where they taught you to swim, whether you needed it or not. The one good thing — if you could swim — was that on the last day of the whole programme, they had a challenge race. Anyone could enter, and I knew one person who would for sure.

I'd noticed that Shane always wore his jacket, even on hot days. It had all his award badges sewn on to it. He was incredibly proud of them. If I could just beat him! That would show him. And everyone. And he couldn't beat me up after that. I'd be a hero. Deep down, I knew that everyone wanted to see him “done”, and if he did pick on me afterwards, it would look like he couldn't take defeat. I'd have him right where I wanted him.

Simple.

And I wasn't a bad swimmer. In Middleton, we lived just down the road from the pool, and I spent half my life in the water. Shane was strong, and he was trained, but I was what they called “a natural”. With a bit of training … But that was the problem.

Mum was working, eight to three-thirty, in town. She couldn't take me to the pool. And it was much too far to walk. I could see my one chance slipping away.

If only we had a pool.

Who was I kidding? We couldn't even afford a Slip-and-Slide. The house had cost everything my parents had — and a little bit more. There were no plans for a pool anywhere in the near future.

I walked back out onto the veranda. A wasp was hovering about where the nest used to be, looking lost. Poor dumb thing, I didn't have the heart to kill it, even though I probably should have. I knew how it felt to lose your home.

I waved my hand at it, and it took off towards George's house next door. Then I looked across the road.

She was staring again.

I'd noticed her before, lots of times, just sitting there, watching. Not just me, but everything. Her house was on the high side of the street, and the land dropped away quite steeply behind us, so she had a great view. I'd never seen a husband. Mum thought she'd heard he'd died, quite recently.

She did have a dog. I'd seen her walking it sometimes, early in the morning, before it got too hot. She looked sad, lonely.

I don't know why I did it, but I waved to her. And flashed my best polite smile. The one I save for visiting relatives and my mother's boring friends. She was looking straight at me at the time, and I half expected her to look away, embarrassed. I would have, if I'd been caught staring. But not her; she smiled right back and signalled me with her hand to come over.

What could I do? I'd trapped myself. You can't just ignore an invitation. Not when you're new in the area and your mother's been at you to get on with the neighbours and not cause trouble. I made my way down the steps and across the street.

She was waiting for me at the door when I arrived. So was her dog. It growled a little bit, deep in its throat, then barked a few times, but half-heartedly, as if it was something it felt obliged to do.

“Gretchen, be quiet!” The dog obeyed, but stared at me warily, with big brown eyes that reminded me of Sandy's. I felt the tightness again in my chest. “Don't mind her,” the woman continued. “She just thinks it's her job to make a noise when people come.” There was an unusual, sing-song quality to her voice. An accent I'd heard before, but couldn't quite place.

I noticed her hand go down and rub behind the dog's ears, and the animal relaxed. Its tail even began to wag slightly.

“Well, come inside. I've got a tin of butter cookies somewhere that I haven't opened yet.” She had already turned back into the house.

What could I do? I followed her inside.

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