I slowed my steps to keep pace with an eager two-year-old waving his arms in the air and yelling, “Daddy, I get sis…”
“Sister.” I lifted Carl and raced the rest of the way across the paddock with our son in my arms.
Bill saw us and brought the tractor to a halt.
“It is—I mean she is…”
Bill wound down the window of the cabin. “What did you say?”
“Sis for me,” Carl yelled and jigged in excitement.
“It’s going to be a girl,” I called. She’s going to be…”
I never finished. My husband leapt from the tractor cabin and swept our two-year-old son and me into his arms. She was the baby we were expecting. I named her Helen.
The process that altered Bill’s mind began like other similar events across remote regions of Australia that spring. Another unmanned, and almost forgotten, former Soviet spacecraft dropped out of orbit. This would appear to have nothing to do with where we lived, in the southern wheat belt of Western Australia, if it were not that the United States government was spending a small fortune every day keeping a malfunctioning and obsolete spacecraft in orbit.
As world headlines burst with the news of several hundred kilograms of highly enriched uranium with the fissionable uranium-235 isotope being scattered over northern Canada as the nuclear-fuelled electrical power modules of space junk, once the property of the former Soviet Union, broke up on re-entry, Bill was accepting the offer of a truck driving contract. It wasn’t what either of us wanted. It was paying work and a means to our goal. We weren’t thinking about space; we wanted to be out of debt and at own our dream farm. We were living the dream and didn’t mind the hard work we were doing to pay for it.
It was when I combed all the newspapers, searching for news of Bill, when he never came home, that I read of what had happened that week and put my interpretation on things. Sure, I’m seeing things a little distorted, but I was pregnant and my husband was missing. I also had a farm burdened to the hilt with debt, and I could not run it on my own. Well, you get the idea. I’d have had to be nuts to think sanely and not be bitter.
A spaceship took my husband. No, I’m not saying little green men from another planet came and whisked him away. I don’t know what happened. But someone does.
The newspapers on the night Bill disappeared were filled with reports of the sonic boom and lights as the space junk came down. Bill witnessed it. Then—nothing.
NASA’s public affairs assured the world that the cluster of space junk they planned to decommission contained no radioactive material. They took advantage of the distraction caused by the Soviet spacecraft’s contamination to bring their largest spacecraft to the ground. They’d have been aware of the diplomatic repercussions if a piece of space junk fell in a populated area or if it got into the wrong hands.
As Bill and I were hugging and celebrating our news, NASA was planning to bring their junk down to crush our dreams.
The early news about the planned re-entry said that NASA would guide the spacecraft on the best possible orbit to have the minimum possible damage. They planned that Spacelab should pass across southern Canada. From there its path would take it over the east coast of the United States. There would be a long stretch of open ocean before it reached the coast of Australia. NASA then hoped that it would fall into the sea, but if not...
They had downed Skylab in Australia without incident, and that hardly raised an objection. Well, none that I was aware about. I guess they see us as an easy-going, friendly lot.
The mood of the newspaper reports altered with the later printings. It seamed that NASA recalculated. Things did not look as bright to them. The predicted debris pattern showed that if re-entry occurred as planned, the western end of the footprint of space junk would overlap North America.
As with the re-entry of Skylab, NASA did not bring their space junk down over their country. They couldn’t risk hitting an enemy’s city, which might stir up repercussions. They adjusted the tumbling of the craft to steer its descent closer to Australia.
I guess they looked at the expansive wheat fields, where I waited for Bill to come home to me, and decided, “Just one man and his dog, Rose (his pregnant wife), a kid, and a few birds in a hen house to rattle with a sonic boom or two. That's what friends are for.”
Bill and my children have grown in the seventeen-years since I last saw Bill. Helen is almost a young woman and Carl is now our nineteen-year-old young man and will graduate from university next year. It is hard to remember to use the plural word, our. I brought them up through childhood alone. Carl, Helen and I muddled up and down the roller-coaster ride of their hormone hostage teen years, with me as a sole supporting parent.
An image of me, at twenty-three, back when I could sleep at night, back when I knew joy in my young husband’s arms before sleeping soundly, is as clear to me tonight as it was then. It's as if the world moved on around me and I froze at the time I realised Bill wasn't coming home.
I still dress and wear my hair in the same two-decade-old style. Heck, I force my maturing body into the same girlish jeans. Our babies have grown into fulfilled adults, but, I plan to be the same when my Bill walks in that door. Looking the same, so we can go forward and pretend the gap between never happened was my fondest wish. Heaven help Bill if he has aged when I find him. I’ll not be able to ignore the desertion if I see the years we have been apart when I search his face for answers. I know—I should have had a few more art therapy sessions with Doctor Minonovitch.
What I’ve never understood is why Bill left us. I made a half-hearted effort to go back into therapy. Then I decided that being screwed up suited me just fine. I function at my best that way. Nut cases make things happen. It’s only insanity if your issues prevent you from functioning. That fool psychologist grief counsellor told me that I am at my sexual peak at forty and I should be in a relationship before my hormones decline. Idiot! I am in a relationship. I’m in love with a memory of a fool ass of a husband, who others believe took off because of mounting debt and responsibility.
“Unsophisticated men with a rural background often hide the evidence of psychosis from those they love,” the psychiatrist I sought guidance from advised me.
“Bullshit.” I paid Minonovitch’s outrageous bill and cancelled further appointments. He cautioned me that I would carry the cost of my disbelief, anger and grief forever if I did not continue with his counselling.
“Well, bull to that too,” I’d retorted. “You can find some other sucker to pay for your exclusive country club membership.”
Dr Minonovitch tried on one of his bore-into-you gazes to halt what I am sure he viewed as an expensive eight-course-menu meal ticket, me, from daring to leave before booking in for another financial fleecing. “You need to work through that anger burden with me or else…”
“You need to work through your God complex,” I snapped. “I’ve more positive things to do with my time and what little money I have.” I also had better ways to channel my frustrations than by talking to a shrink. Follow Your Dreams and my quest to find Bill was born.
I stare at the screen image of Bill, Carl, and me on the “Follow Your Dreams” website home page. This is where I channel my pain, strife, and insanity. I encourage it. Bring me your madness for free. I specialise in the anger and anguish experienced when loved family members go missing without warning. Donations support us and fund the search for Bill.
What makes you lose sleep? Heck, I can’t sleep at night, so I might as well keep you awake and listen. Tell me your insanity. I lead by example. I have sub-blogs within blogs dealing with everything from budgeting to the sites where those contemplating taking the drastic action of leaving their families are encouraged to talk to volunteer councillors before making a decision.
Follow Your Dreams website is also a front and the fundraiser for the passion that drives me—finding lost people. The Follow Your Dreams’ blog was a cover for a homespun, untrained, unskilled, unlicensed, under-resourced parent, teenager, and child detective agency—an utterly outrageous concept led by a certifiable, (so I've been told by Dr Minonovitch) neurotic female.
Right now, hundreds of police, civilians, and even a skilled Aboriginal tracker had failed to find a four-year-old boy in a Batman suit who had gone missing in the scrub near his home. I agreed with the experts: he would not survive out in the open for another night, and my team is ready. They are going to find him.
I glance toward my teenagers’ bedrooms, wishing they could be safe in their beds rather than wanting to be out this late at night. I made coffee and set it beside the computer. You can do this. I’m apprehensive as I open to read what the other dream chasers will report.
We don’t just talk; we act. We operate at night when mainstream activity ceases. We act when others give up on the search for people like my husband Bill, believing he’d chosen to leave his family. We work when night, or the decreased probability of survival, has caused searches for missing children to be scaled back. We act, with fear in our hearts as to what we might find, especially this cold night.
My role tonight is that of organiser and operations director of “Find Batman.”
“A four-year-old boy wondered into a rainforest, wearing a batman suit ten days ago,’’ I write in the closed members area. “What are the latest updates?”
“Current belief is that he could only have survived if he had been abducted and is being cared for,” Sentinel replied.
“The family has made appeals for his return,” Brown Angel messaged.
Sentinel’s tree image popped up beside her message. “The police have changed the emphasis from a search for a lost boy to a probable abduction.”
Greenie, our contact at the search site, sent several text messages in a row. “A group of volunteer bushwalkers and the parents have gathered at a camp near the forest to resume the search in the daylight.” Pause. “The police will lead them, but have been cautioning everyone personally.” Pause. “They just spoke to me.”
“What did they want?”
“They warned me it is more likely to be a recovery mission than a rescue.”
I checked the Twitter messages from the official searches as I waited for Greenie’s next message to come in.
“Told me it would be better if I went home now, if I could not cope with bad news. They said…”
As I impatiently waited for the remainder of the message to type out on my computer screen, I crossed to check the latest ABC News report. “Hopes are slim that the lightly clad child could survive another night in the cold.”
Greenie wrote, “He had no water or food with him. They are scaling back the search. Calling it off until daylight.”
Brown Angel’s wing sign showed beside the message. “Time for our team to go in.”
I bit my lip. “You are all wearing jackets, jeans, and hiking boots?”
“Relax,” Brown Angel messaged and added a smiley face.
“Watch out for snakes.”
“We’re not all kids,” Sentinel wrote. “Trust us.”
“I trust you. Don’t go breaking your necks stumbling into wombat holes.”
“I’ll carry Ben most of the time,” Sentinel messaged. “Got to go, boss.”
How could she know how those words would affect me? My body and work were in the present; in my mind, I was with Bill at the end of the last day we spent together.
Slipping back to be with Bill seventeen years ago is a large part of every day that I live. I’m back, beside his truck, farewelling him on that last journey. I’d put Carl down on his feet beside the front gate and ordered him not to come near the truck. Hiding my revulsion from Bill, I followed him as he’d inspected the rigging over his load and adjusted the Hazardous Chemical sign.
I moved back to Carl to wave to his dad with him. Then holding my breath, I ran and kissed Bill before hurrying back to the side of the road to fill my lungs. The air was acrid.
“I’ll miss you,” I called.
Bill climbed into the cab. “You’ll be right beside me all the way.”
Maybe I was super-sensitive due to pregnancy, and others might not have reacted. I needed to get Carl home before I collapsed. I grabbed his hand, hurried the confused boy back to the farmhouse, and locked the door behind us.
“Mummy is going to be sick for a bit, but I'll be all right soon.” I touched my belly. “Your sister is too young to inhale chemicals, so we will both have to stay inside until that smell clears.”
I went inside and connected with Bill on the two-way radio once I’d recovered from the worst bout of morning sickness I’d ever experienced. The moment the radio crackled with Bill’s incoming call, I snatched up the receiver.
Bill had offered his younger brother Tom work as co-driver. They shared the two-day-long, non-stop haul across the Nullarbor Plain. They were on the return route, heading home to me when I got their final call-in.
“There’s this crazy stream of sparks in the sky,” Bill said.
“Shooting stars,” I said. “A Meteor shower. You get magical-sky vistas on a clear night so far out from the city.”
“No—o,” Bill said. The radio stuttered with static electricity. “More like massive fireworks out over Bass Strait, heading for the coast—ahead of us.”
“It’ll be a meteorite,” Tom said.
“How’s the cargo travelling?” I asked. “Everything stable?”
“Yes, the cargo is fine.” Bill said. “This light approached us across the desert before we saw the sky light up as it is. I tell you, it’s eerie out here tonight.”
“Something like the Min Min lights?” I asked. ‘I’ve seen them in the channel country where I grew up.”
“Min Min lights?” Tom’s younger voice spoke through the radio speaker. “Not here.”
“Hi, Tom,” I said. “How are you finding your first crossing of the continent?”
“They don't get Min Min lights out here,” Tom said.
Bill laughed. “Sorry, I forgot. Tom’s been hoping to see the Nullarbor Nymph out there.”
“Listen here, Tom,” I said. “When you’re driving, take that load you’re carrying seriously. Stargazing is fine, as long as whoever’s driving has his eyes on that road and isn’t searching for girls prancing around with a mob of kangaroos. That’s valuable cargo I’ve trusted you with—my Bill.”
Bill’s voice crackled with laughter through the speaker. “Tom’s disappointed. No naked blondes are streaking across the highway tonight. He doesn’t want to believe it’s just a hoax they made up at the pub back there. Seen a few wild camels, though.”
Tom chipped into Bill’s conversation, “Those weren’t the humps I hoped to see.”
Bill spoke at the same time as Tom. “Not so easy to concentrate on the road when you get unexplained lights heading towards you across the desert.”
“You get the Fata Morgana lights anywhere there is flat land with gentle hollows and rises,” I explained. I’d always had a passion for researching anything of interest to me. “Especially where there’s an unbroken view to the horizon. It’s all about light rays being bent between temperature layers. Nothing mysterious. Is it cold there?”
“That’s all a part of how those lights bend. You can see them before the source of the light appears above the horizon.”
“I guess you didn't believe in fairies either,” Tom said.
“No, I was the funless square until I met Bill.”
“Now, I’ve got to focus,” Bill said. “You need to as well, Tom. Keep our minds on the job. I need to stop letting my eyes follow that distracting light.”
“So, you are certain what we see on the ground is just a mirage of far-off headlights?” Tom asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Unless you want the Irish explanation my dad gives.”
“What’s that?” Tom asked. “Gosh, you should see this sky.”
“Watch the road, not the bloody sky if you’re the driver,” I said. “My folks said these lights represent an old fellow too bad to get into heaven and too good to go to hell.”
* * *
That was the last time I heard from my Bill. Our baby girl I was carrying and our little boy are almost adults. You would be so proud of them, Bill.
The unanswered message button brought me back from sitting in the farmhouse kitchen, talking to Bill and Tom on a two-way radio seventeen years earlier, to the computer in a rented welfare home in the suburbs.
“My boy is so excited about this adventure,” Sentinel said.
“Make sure you find the lost boy before your child sees him.” Jarred at being forced back to reality when Bill’s voice had been so clear in my mind, I forced my coordinator’s alertness to surface. “This might not be the result we hoped for.”
“It’s worth a try,” Sentinel said.
“No real names, stupid,” I snapped at Brown Angel. “We don’t want any trouble from the authorities for doing an unauthorised search.” There was no reply. “Sorry,” I messaged.
I did not want to go back into therapy again. I made a note to talk to Helen and Carl about my struggle with anger management and to ask for their advice. They’d tell me straight if they believed I couldn’t get through this without further professional help.
Focus. Get back to reality before you totally lose it, Rose. I shook my head and blinked at the computer screen and swigged down the last of the cold coffee. I know what we are doing is wrong. My children’s eager eyes had persuaded me to allow them to take their four–year-old nephew into a forest at night in search of another four–year-old already lost there.
Folly? You bet… I dreaded what they might find. I’m not only fearful of what they might find but also of any repercussions if it gets out to the child welfare authorities that we were using a small boy in this way. The fact that he was eager for adventure would not help his mother Clair.
My sister Clair struggled with parenting. Welfare agencies kept scrutiny over her. I considered she did well, given she was a teenager managing on single parent benefits. I kept a close watch on her and Ben too. Helen and I already spent more time looking after young Ben than she did.
We were watching Ben play Batman when Helen clapped her hands in excitement. “Why not take Ben into the forest near where the boy was last seen?” Helen’s eyes widened. Her words quickened. “Ask Ben to play at being Batman and we follow him. It is so crazy it might work.”
“It could work to get the welfare authorities to decide that Clair is an unfit mother,” I warned. “Adults need to guide children in bushland, not allow them to have the lead. We don’t want two lost boys and Clair—and us too being charged with child neglect.”
My doubts held me back from considering Helen’s suggestion until hope that the boy could still be alive if lost in the bush had faded. I still had my qualms even as I agreed to include Ben in our lost child searches. “He will think like a child where we are thinking like adults and miss things that a child will observe. It’s still not right to involve a young child.”
“Mum, if the lost boy is alive, why hasn’t he been found?”
"Maybe he is hurt and they haven’t searched where he is,” I said.
“Maybe he is afraid of the searchers,” Helen said. “Suppose he is scared he will get into trouble and is hiding from adults.”
“That could happen.” I nodded my head.
“Ben has a Batman costume. The lost boy won’t hide from a little boy like himself.” Helen’s voice rose in eagerness. “Please, Oh, please say yes, Mum.”
“I want to find the lost boy.” Ben’s eyes implored me.
And so my sister’s four-year-old boy became the latest recruit to our missing person search team.
Clair wanted to be close to the action, so she joined the official search party as a volunteer so she could feed us the latest news on the terrain they had already covered. "They make a lot of noise as they search—talking, calling out."
I received her text messages in a message box at the side of my computer screen. "Then we won’t have any adults calling to the boy." My call sign was Insomnia. We were not using our real names over the Internet.
Clair’s call signature Greenie popped up in the message area. "They are safety conscious and insist that the searchers are all back at base camp by sunset."
"So, we will be reckless fools and enter the bush after dark."
"They searched around and dragged the edge of the lake today. No sign of him."
"He has to be near water if he survived this long." I enlarged a map on the computer screen and zoomed in on areas marked as swamps. "What about the Wonderland Swamp?" I asked.
"There's a steep climb to get there,” Clair said. “A few men scrambled in. He's just a kid..."
"When was the last time you told your boy to get down out of a tree?"
Clair hesitated before answering. "Yes, I think we have to look at the terrain as if we were a four-year-old boy."
"A boy starting out looking for adventure.” By telling me how, when and where they are searching Clair guided me to plan our operation differently. "We will find him tonight."
“Blackbird is putting on his Batman suit,” Sentinel messaged. “He can hardly contain his excitement.”
“Don’t let him out of your sight,” I said. “I wish I could be there.”
“You coordinate things,” Brown Angel said. “We need you there.”
“You know we need you at the base.” There was a three-second pause then Sentinel messaged. “I love you. We are going in.”
“Good Luck,” I wrote and hit send.
No matter the outcome of the night’s search for a child that none of us knew aside from through the news, I’d keep searching for my husband Bill.
I went for another coffee and returned to the computer. The screen glowed brightly in the instant I leaned over the well-worn office chair and touched the keyboard. I squinted—too much brightness for tired eyes. I dimmed the computer screen and then sank appreciatively into the comfortable, back-supporting seat. Pulling the chair in so my feet could rest on the bean bag under the desk. I couldn’t have slept with all that was in my head bursting to escape.
The open page on the screen was my confidant, and I poured out all that grieved me—now and from the past.
I wrote online: Once again, I’ve succeeded in not ending up a total emotional wreck. I did it for our children. I had no way of knowing when their father would come home or where he was. I left it to the police to find him, initially. Then at some stage, I’m not sure when, the blur of grief and wanting to wake up and know that it never happened changed to writing this blog and asking for your help to find him. I share news of our search for Bill with you, my readers.
I hit the save button. Raw, unedited feelings went live online. I settled in to read the blog comments. Many were like mine, a mix of positive feedback and the occasional vent. As well as being a place where I vented my frustrations, it was a practical website with a following of thousands. The readers contributed through comments, and donated to assist the lost people searches.
The comments posts were filled with the waffled thoughts from tired mums. The blog proposed solutions to problem issues. The blog reader’s comments provided tips on family life and maintaining resilience where there is no happily-ever-after in sight.
I’d leant my car for the evening to the amateur sleuths. I hoped no one would read the number plate and connect it to my family given I involved my young nephew.
* * *
Ben leapt from the car when it stopped at the start of the walking trail we had selected for tonight’s search. Brown Angel handed him a small bottle of water.
Sentinel tucked jellybeans into a tiny backpack that she placed over Ben’s shoulders. She gave him a torch and walkie-talkie radio. “Lead on, Blackbird.”
“Blackbird to the rescue,” Brown Angel said.
The three of them crossed the exclusion zone set up by the police. They entered an area already searched twice and scrambled up the steep slope. Once out of hearing of the small gathering at a campsite set up as the official search headquarters, Ben, Brown Angel and Sentinel turned on torches. The seek out the missing Batman Boy game began for our Ben.
Giggling, Ben called out, ‘Come and play with me,’ and ‘Want to share my jelly beans and water?’ His call brought no response aside from the croak of frogs.
The young adults moved closer to Ben as he edged towards the water.
The boy sensed their fear. He stopped and held his arms out to Sentinel. “I want to go home.”
Sentinel hugged Ben. “You did well. You tried.”
“We will take you home.” Brown Angel patted Ben’s shoulder.
“No. Changed my mind.” Ben wiggled out of Sentinel's arms. “I want to.” He shone his torch ahead over water. “Please come out and play with me.”
“I’ll piggy back you.” Sentinel bent down, and Ben clambered on her back.
“Yuck.” Brown Angel picked up a branch and swiped several leaches off Ben’s shoes. “We will have to get him home soon.”
“We can’t go much further.” Sentinel waded into the shallow lake, eager to reach a small mud island ahead of her. “Hang on, it’s slippery.” She reached out and grasped Brown Angel’s outstretched hand.
Brown Angel held her hand firm. “You can’t go any further.”
Disheartened they turned to retreat.
A black swan honked.
They swung around to see, the sound was so close. The swan moved aside on its nest and the silhouette of a second swan’s neck rose from beneath the reed nest. Its long neck stretched up, and the mound of its body silhouetted against the moonlit water.
Ben gasped in fright and dropped his torch in the water. “I want to go home.”
The mound in the swan’s reed island nest moved. “I want to go home,” a weak voice carried back to them across the water. What had appeared to be an extended swan’s neck became a frantic flailing arm.
Brown Angel rushed forward wading through the water with his arms out ready to scoop little, lost Batman into them. The lake surrounds rang with joyous laughter, whispered soothing reassurances, the deep-throated protest and flapping wings of disturbed waterfowl.
The boy sleuth, my nephew Ben, was on an adrenalin high of excitement. He whooped and hollered, the sounds piercing the night, waking the search party and the found boy’s parents.
“Great job done, Ben and company,” I typed through tears. I turned the television on in time to watch the found boy wrapped in his mother and father’s arms. In the background, I could see my teenagers, Helen and Carl and my sister Claire and her son Ben getting into my car. Carl drove them home to my welcoming arms, (shudder) de-leaching and showers. Bill, you would be so proud of our kids. We are going to find you too.
* * *
This short story inspired the novel, Star Struck by Ryn Shell.
Hey it's me, Ryn.
Copyright Short Stories by