“Sunshine Airlines welcomes passengers travelling on flight 387 to Melbourne. Please have your boarding passes ready for checking at the gate.”
“Have a wonderful time,” Jill Morison said, hugging her son, “and don’t go making a nuisance of yourself.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
She gave him a final inspection before pushing his hair back and kissing him on the forehead. “You really should’ve had your hair cut, sweetie.”
“When I get back, I promise.”
“Very well then, off you go.” She turned him around and nudged him towards the Collins family. “Don’t forget to call me when you arrive.”
“All set?” Lorina asked as he joined them at the end of the queue.
Loraine turned towards him, smiling to greet him, but suddenly her jaw dropped. “What happened to your hair?”
“What do you mean?”
He tried running his hands through his long shaggy locks but found only a bald scalp instead. “What? How? This can’t be happening!”
Loraine covered her mouth. “Wh-what are those things on your feet?”
He looked down, expecting to see his well-tanned bare toes, only to discover they were encased in fluorescent pink sneakers.
“NOOOOOOO! I haven’t been in any fights, honest!”
Joel woke, a scream choked in his throat. He gasped, uncertain where he was or why he was suddenly lying down, but the fresh mountain air and warm sleeping bag around him soon vanquished the remnants of his nightmare. Checking that he hadn’t woken Loraine, he quietly unzipped himself and crept out of the tent.
The sun hadn’t yet risen, but the glow on the eastern horizon suggested dawn wasn’t far off. He stepped over to the edge of their campsite, finding a comfortable-looking rock on which to perch and relishing the sandstone’s cold caress on his bare buttocks.
Below him, in a vista straight out of the travel guides, eucalypt forest gave way to mist straddled coastal plains stretching out to a distant sea as still as the proverbial mill pond. The lightest of breezes tussled his hair, reminding him of that horrible dream. Running his fingers through each lock, he made sure the phantom barber hadn’t snuck into their tent during the night, but all was well. He took another deep breath of the mountain air, letting a grin of pure satisfaction spread across his face. There could be nothing better than this, absolutely nothing.
He turned his head as soft footsteps approached from behind. Loraine, also naked, sat beside him before putting her arm around his shoulders and kissing him gently on the nose.
“I tried not to wake you,” he said.
“It wasn’t you; I just needed to watch the dawn.”
“It’s so beautiful I could sit here forever.”
She kissed him again, this time on the cheek.
A kookaburra began its morning serenade, soon joined by several others of its clan.
“Hey, they’re laughing at us,” Joel said.
“They’re just envious, that’s all.”
“And so they should be.”
Away in the distance, the sea burst into orange fire as the sun’s disc crept over the horizon. Even the kookaburras stopped their chatter to watch.
Loraine reached across with her other hand, running her finger down the centre of Joel’s chest, but he gently stopped her. “You can touch me anywhere you want, but please don’t do that.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Back when we were on Meridian, the female yowie did that with her claw, and I still have nightmares in which my guts spill out and make a horrible mess across the studio floor.”
“Gosh, I’m sorry Joel, I never realised. Is that what woke you this morning?”
“No, it was a different nightmare.”
“Poor Joel.” She wrapped both arms around him, kissing him again on the cheek. “You were so brave the way you stood up to those yowies.”
“I never meant to be; that’s what makes it so scary.”
“I know it’s easy to say and ever so hard to do, but you have to put all that behind you and look to the future. Your life ahead’s going to be fun, exciting and, above all, safe.”
“I know, but my dreams have other ideas.”
“Maybe in the future you’ll be dreaming about this place and the beautiful sunrise we just witnessed.”
“Yeah, that’d be nice.” He stood, stretching. “I’ll get breakfast on so we can make an early start, I guess. Do you want me to stoke up the fire for some toast, or will just cereal do?”
“Just cereal, thanks.”
He nodded before rummaging through his backpack to find the plastic cereal bowls and spoons.
“Dry or with milk?”
“I have mine dry.”
“Yes, I know.”
“The same as yesterday morning, right?”
“Yes, and the morning before too.”
“Predictability is nice.”
“So is variety.”
“Not when it comes to soggy cereal.”
“All set?” Joel asked as he pulled on his board shorts.
Loraine zipped up her backpack. “Yep, let’s go.”
Joel was about to start walking when a noise in the undergrowth stopped him. “What’s that?”
As they watched, an echidna waddled out onto the track in front of them, completely oblivious to the two people watching it.
“Look at it,” Loraine said. “It’s so cute.”
“Be careful of the spurs on its back legs; they can give you a nasty jab. Did you know they’re one of only two species of egg-laying mammals?”
“The other one being the platypus, right?”
“Exactly. You know I read somewhere that male echidnas have a four-headed penis.”
“Gosh. All the better to turn on those lady echidnas.”
A puzzled expression crossed Joel’s face. “I guess so.”
“Look, it’s sniffing out that trail of ants.”
“I think I’ll stick to soggy cereal.”
Joel screwed up his face in revulsion. “I’d rather eat ants.”
“I’m sure that can be arranged.”
Joel looked back at the echidna as it flashed out its tongue to grab an unsuspecting ant. “We should press on and leave it to dine in peace.”
Loraine hoisted her backpack over her shoulders, sighing as he strode off down the track without waiting for her.
“Joel, look at those beautiful pink wildflowers over there! Aren’t they just gorgeous?”
“Actually, while they look pink to us, they’re really designed to attract insects which can see into the ultraviolet range. To them, they’re probably a sort of super purple, or perhaps some other colour we just can’t comprehend.”
Loraine frowned. “Honestly, Joel, you’re about as romantic as a block of wood.”
“My dad has a carpenter friend and to him blocks of wood are very romantic.”
“Is there anything that excites you, gives you that special tingle inside?”
“You mean like sherbet?”
Clambering down a flight of rocky steps, they reached a creek crossing with a large pool just upstream of the ford.
“This must be Dead Cow Creek,” Joel said.
“Inspiring name; that must have taken a lot of thought.”
“It’s probably to discourage tourists, like Sandfly Bay over on the coast.”
Loraine chuckled. “You mean there really aren’t any sandflies there?”
“Not a one, but the locals get to keep their fishing spots all to themselves.”
“Nice one. So, assuming there aren’t really dead cows floating in this creek, do you want to go for a swim? That waterhole looks so inviting!”
“You bet!” Joel said, pulling off his board shorts.
“Hang on, I don’t get it. All summer you’ve worn nothing but those swimming trunks, yet now that we’re going swimming you take them off. How come?”
“I don’t want to be walking in wet clothes afterwards. Besides, skinny-dipping is much more fun, and, um, even romantic.”
Loraine smiled as she started removing her tank top and shorts. “You’re right.”
Joel leapt into the water, the splash sending a flock of startled galahs squawking into the sky. “Me Nature Boy!”
“You are indeed,” she said, easing herself into the water and swimming out to him. He flicked his hand across the surface, splashing her in the face.
“This means war,” she said, splashing him back.
Joel pointed over Loraine’s shoulder. “Look!”
As she turned her head, he dived under the water and grabbed her legs, pulling her down. They grappled underwater, each trying to keep the other down until both ran out of air. Surfacing, they looked into each other’s eyes, Loraine’s goofy grin a perfect match for Joel’s.
“Um, Loraine,” Joel said as they lay drying themselves on the sun-warmed rocks. “I was wondering, like, would you, um, do you want to get married?”
“What, to you?”
“Well, yeah, um, if you really want to. Not straight away, of course, but, um –”
Loraine sighed. “Are you sure you really love me, Joel?”
“Of course I do. You and David have been my best friends, well practically my only friends, since we first met, and, um, we get along pretty well, don’t we?”
Loraine put a hand on Joel’s shoulder. “It’s fine for you and David to be best mates and hang out together or go hiking in the mountains to check out the ultraviolet vision of insects, but with me there has to be more. I’m a woman and have different needs; I’m not David’s twin!”
Joel looked confused. “You mean he’s not really your brother?”
If ever there was a moment Loraine wanted to strangle him, this was it. Instead she burst out laughing. “Oh Joel, you moron, you absolutely adorable moron, come here and I’ll show you exactly what I mean.”