At the height of the drought, every Tom, Dick and Harry comes around for a loan. They're putting up their homes, they're putting up their mothers or else they have nothing as collateral.
Michael had heard every castle spun in the sky, every sob story but the winner was the one about the child setting fire to the field a week out from harvest. 'All over a goddamn book, would you believe?' And Michael did not believe it until he saw the piece in The Leader. Boy torches crop. There was a photo of the boy taken at the carnival and then another with his medal after the local spelling bee.
Would you believe it? No, he did not believe it. His own daughter was nine years old and he tried to imagine her burning their home or even the fence and he couldn't. She would never do it. She had pigtails and ribbons and went around in a dress and polished shoes. His little Mia would never do that.
He truly believed that until she brought Jayden around after school. She told her dad that Jayden was in her class and he was afraid to go home, could he stay a while, please? He watched his little Mia lead Jayden to the trampoline where they bounced higher than the fences. He imagined the neighbours spotting the delinquent in his yard so he called out to her, 'Honey, why don't you and your friend come in for some cake?'
He hid the matches and the lighter before they entered the house and he worried about the fireplace giving Jayden ideas. So he seated them at the dining table with their backs to where the fire could have been.
He wondered how long they'd been friends. She had never mentioned Jayden before. He hoped it was a passing thing and that she would go back to inviting Bella and Sean around instead.
Jayden talked about books and how much he'd read. Mia told him about her collection of cars and before he could stop them, they ran off to her room. Mia's bedroom was the largest in the house and had a fireplace of its own.
He followed them but Mia said they were just going to play and they'd call out if they needed anything.
Jayden was just a boy, he was nine years old, he was as harmless as a pet. Once, when Mia was five, they took in a stray cat but no matter the love and milk, it still looked like a stray. When it lunged at Mia, they knew it was time to get rid of it. Jenny took Mia to the shops and while they were gone he caught the cat in a bag and threw it in the river as his uncle had taught him to do. 'You need to throw it in and walk away,' and he did exactly that but he heard the cat all the same.
He imagined his daughter alone in a room with a boy who torched his father's fields. If he did that to the father who clothed and fed him, what would he do to a friend?
They can't be good friends, he thought.
He walked to her bedroom door and put his ear to it. They were laughing and talking too quietly for him to make out their words. There was the sound of wood against wood. That would be the wooden blocks, he thought, she must be going through her collection, and those must be the wheels on the floorboards.
He waited. He heard the sound of paper, the crinkle of plastic, and he imagined them sharing a packet of lollies. They had a rule against eating in bedrooms but he decided against opening the door again. Instead, he retreated to the kitchen.
He thought about calling Jenny to tell her who Mia had brought home but he didn't. He would watch the door and keep his ear out for anything strange. It was when he realised he was holding his breath that he shook himself and made his way outside.
Fifteen minutes passed. He timed it. There wasn't a peep from her room. Quietly, he walked to the back of the house to her window.
There was silence, the murmur of words and then they didn't talk anymore. A car was dragged back and forth across the floor. He heard footsteps. Someone was coming towards the window and he pressed himself to the wall. He imagined them playing with matches, he imagined Jayden whispering in her ear: Go ahead, light it. What nine-year-old sets a field alight? There mustn't be enough beds at the hospital or else they would have locked him up for sure.
Whoever was at the window walks towards the door and opens it. 'Dad? Dad? Could you come here, please?' He raced around the house to enter through the front door. He tried to calm his breathing so he didn't sound puffed. Mia was standing in the hallway outside her room.
'I need a candle.'
He wheezed, feeling sick. What did she need a candle for? 'I don't think we have any.'
'Yes, we do. Mum has those ones that smell.'
She was right. Jenny with her collection: Japanese blossoms, citrus, sandalwood, lavender, vanilla and cinnamon. There was black cherry, there was ocean breeze. 'But those are for your mum - you know those are hers,' he said in a singsong voice he'd never used with her.
She crossed her arms, stared him down even though he was the taller one. 'Jayden wants a candle.'
But Jayden is insane, darling, he set his father's farm on fire, and he needs to be locked up so the rest of us can be safe.
'We can get candles next time we're in town.'
'Call Mum. She's in town.'
Where had this command come from?
Jayden appeared. He smiled up at Mia's dad. 'We need the candle.'
He imagined a nightmare of smoke, ash and flame. They were only nine years old and he was at least triple their age.
Tell them no. Go on, do it!
Mia walked to the kitchen, picked up the phone and put in Jenny's number. 'Mum? I need a candle. Can I use one of yours?' She paused. 'I'll get Dad.' She held out the phone to him.
'What does she want a goddamn candle for?' Jenny asked. 'Is that Anderson boy there? I told her she's not to bring him around. I don't want him anywhere near her.' As Jenny spoke, he had his eye on the two children in his care. Mia had picked up a small knife and Jayden had an axe in his hand.
'We just need a candle. That's all we need,' Mia said, her voice sounding like that of someone else.
'We need a candle,' said Jayden. 'Mum has many candles.'
He did not want to make eye contact. He remembered being younger and his mother saying to him, 'If you see someone strange on the street, don't look them in the eye or they'll notice you.'
He avoided their eyes as they advanced towards him. He thought of the burning fields and how it was on the news. So many people said the boy should have been locked away for good but others said, 'He's just a boy, for Christ's sake.'
And here was the boy and he was holding an axe and precious Mia had a knife in her hand.
He turned and ran for the door but he didn't make it that far. As he fell to the ground he thought: I never imagined my life would end like this.
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