Homer and Fi broke up. They both told me today, both of them sounding a bit too pleased for it to be entirely normal. Nobody sounds that happy after a normal breakup. Or maybe they were just relieved it was over. A long-distance relationship can be hard.
Fi sounded pretty normal on the phone when she rang me -- it was our weekly chat, and she didn't say it, but I gathered that she'd spoken to Homer before me and ended it. We chatted about her school for a while, and I told her about the fight over property lines that her Mum'd resolved. It was a stupid fight, of course, all fights are stupid, but this one was scary as well. I guess it was because it was between the Taylors and the Jacksons, and they've known each other for years. Even now Miranda Taylor and Erin Jackson aren't talking to each other, and they were in Prep together.
Of course, they're only in Grade One now, so I could be overdramatising the point.
Homer told me in person, though. Almost as soon as I'd hung up from talking to Fi, and stepped back outside to go and help Dad in the paddock, I heard his voice: 'El! Ellie!'
'Homer, hi. You didn't say you were coming around.' I gave him a hug, feeling the less pronounced jut of his ribs now he'd begun to put a bit of weight back on. 'What're you doing here?'
He didn't answer straight away, just asked, 'Are you busy?'
I thought about it. 'Well, I'm supposed to be helping Dad in the paddock.' I looked over to where he was kneeling by the tractor, examining a ding in the side. 'But Gavin's over there, and it looks like they're getting on all right. I'd better ask though.' I jumped the fence and ran over and asked Dad if I could go off with Homer for a bit. I still didn't know what Homer wanted, so I had to avoid that when Dad asked, but Dad just nodded and shooed me away. I heard his voice when I was walking off, saying something to Gavin, slowly and clearly so that Gavin could lip-read it, and smiled to myself. It looked like Gavin was fitting in pretty well, after all.
We walked through the paddocks that were no longer mine, side by side, not saying much at all. Homer asked how the turkeys were -- some of them'd been sick, and Dad was worried it might turn into an epidemic -- and I sort of shrugged, but apart from that there wasn't much conversation. School was over, and there just wasn't anything to talk about. I suppose I could've said something about the phone call I'd had before Fi's, but I didn't.
When the bulk of Tailor's Stitch loomed up in front of us, I realised where Homer wanted us to go.
'Mmmm.' He just kept walking, and I had to trot to keep up with him -- he's got longer legs than I do, and he wasn't walking slowly either.
'Fi called me.'
'I know. She said she would, when I spoke to her.'
So that confirmed my theory.
'Are you OK?'
'Yes, I'm fine. I've known this was coming for some time.' Then he said something very unHomerlike. 'Let's not talk about it right now, okay El?'
We kept walking, one in each rut of the four-wheel-drive track, the bush melting into existence around us. The last time I came up here was to get my notebooks, and that time I'd come up in the Landie, opening and closing gates that belonged to different people now. Nobody minded -- the only people who fought over stuff like that were morons like Mr. Taylor and Mr. Jackson, and we all knew they were thick anyway. They'd been best buddies when they were just neighbours, but now that their properties were about sixty times smaller, every inch of land was precious. I was just glad they hadn't blamed Fi's Mum for it.
The bush wasn't silent around us. The birds were back, making their bird noises, fighting over nest space, and generally being loud. Over to my left, something started up and raced off through the trees -- probably a roo. The kangaroos were one thing that weren't afraid during the war, and they sure weren't being shy now. We'd found one in the paddock one day, placidly nibbling away on our spuds, until Dad shot it. Roo meat was good, and there was a lot of it at the moment.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, went our feet on the leaves as we made our way up to the top of the hill. We passed the point where we usually had to ditch the Landie, and a bit further on was the top of the path down into Hell.
It was time for a breather. Homer had brought water bottles, fortunately -- I hadn't even thought of it when we were leaving the house, just reknotted a lace on one of my boots and yelled goodbye to Dad and Gavin. Mum was in town, having afternoon tea with some of her mates.
The water was good -- a little warm, from being carried in the sun -- but I'd been in the sun too and I was thirsty. I drank greedily, slurping it down, and only stopped when I felt Homer's hand gently tilting the bottle back down away from my mouth.
'Steady on,' he said. 'We've got a little way to go still.' He put the bottle back in the little pack he was carrying, and together we plunged into the wilderness.
The path was still as steep as I'd last seen it, which was at least three months ago. I kept using my toes as brakes, which was stupid, because then Homer ran into me from behind and I nearly fell forward anyway. Surprisingly, he didn't get angry at me -- just laughed and told me to keep moving.
At one point I really did have to stop. My entire calf muscle knotted up, and down I went, tumbling onto the dirt, yelping. I dug my fingers into it and worked it, mentally begging it to loosen.
At least I didn't have someone shooting at me for a change.
When Homer realised what was going on -- it took about five seconds, which is quick for Homer -- he knelt down beside me and batted my hands away, taking over. His big hands soothed the tension out of the muscle much faster than mine would have. Watching him work, his hair hanging in his face - the first thing he'd done when we got back to civilisation was cut it, but it'd grown out again -- I felt safe.
Finally the pain stopped, and I got up, leaning on Homer for support for a few steps before I decided I could walk on my own.
He waved at me, in a go on gesture. 'Yeah, well, if I get bitten by a snake you'd better start sucking the poison out, or I might give you that cramp back.'
'Then I won't be able to run for help.'
We kept walking, and eventually came out in the little clearing that had been home for so long.
Homer stood on his toes and looked around, while I started picking up the odd bits and pieces that were still lying around. Most of the stuff had been moved into one of the tents before the last time we left, but there was a frying pan lying upside-down in the middle of the clearing, and a Minty wrapper fluttering against a tree. Strange, I didn't remember anyone having Minties. But maybe it was just fallout from one of the kids' pockets. This one was torn in that spiral pattern that little kids like to do, that I could never master, and I tucked it into my own pocket, thinking I'd throw it in the bin when I got home.
'It's so much like we left it,' Homer said.
'Well, who else would be down here?'
'I didn't think the Hermit from Hell was going to move in, but I thought the tents might've fallen down at least.' One had caved in a bit, but mostly they were still standing up. 'But they're tough.'
'Yeah, like us.'
He smiled briefly, looking around again. 'I don't know why I wanted to come down here. I guess it was talking to Fi. This was the place where I first, sort of, um, I don't know...'
'Fell in love with her?' I suggested.
Homer nodded. He was blushing, right to the tips of his ears. 'Yeah. Yeah.'
'Right.' I toed a stick, and it whipped around and slithered off into the bushes. I jumped. 'Shit!'
'Snake.' I was blushing now, embarrassed that I hadn't realised sooner. 'I thought it was a stick.'
'Hasn't spending a year out here taught you the difference?'
'You were the one who let one take a siesta in your sleeping bag.'
He grabbed me and started tickling me. 'You're going to regret that,' he growled between digging his fingers into my ribs.
'Homer! Stop it!' I wriggled round to face him, and actually got a few good jabs into his ribs before he pinned my arms with his. 'God, you're a terror.'
'Fi used to say that.' He looked sad, but I wasn't sure if he was putting it on or not. 'I thought it was funny, but she thought I was terrible. Like the time she found a spider in her hair -- it'd dropped out of a tree - and I pretended to eat it.'
'Yuck, Homer, that's disgusting.'
'Nope.' He squeezed me tighter. 'I let Fi go, and look what happened. If I let you go, who knows where you'll go?'
I swallowed. 'America.'
He let go of me and stepped back. In the fading light, his face looked like he'd just been hit in the forehead with a Brussels sprout. 'You what?'
Now I felt miserable. 'Colonel Finley - General Finley -- offered. He said if I do some interviews, some PR stuff over there, then I can stay over there quite a while.'
'Why didn't you tell me sooner?'
'I only just found out! Just before I spoke to Fi, General Finley rang and offered me a bit of a holiday. I need to get out of here Homer, and this is my chance.'
It wasn't just the light. He really did look bad. 'But Ellie, don't your parents need you here?' He was asking something else, I could tell, I just didn't know what it was.
'They've got Gavin now. And they know that they'd have to lose me sooner or later. School's over -- I'll have to find work if I don't go overseas, and that's going to mean going off to Stratton or somewhere all day anyway.'
'Oh, El,' he said. I know I've said before that Homer's not a touchy-feely person, but now he reached out for me and I let him hug me again, his arms going around my shoulders and my arms tucking in around his waist. I'm taller than Fi, but now I felt little like her, because Homer was so big.
I felt him press his lips against my forehead, and looked up at him, sort of surprised and not surprised at the same time.
'Don't go Ellie...' He brushed his lips on my cheek. 'Don't go...' The other cheek. 'Stay here.' My mouth.
This was Homer. Homer, who I'd grown up with. Homer, who I'd been mates with forever. Homer, who I'd seen get into relationships and then out of them, who'd fallen in love with Fi so completely that I still wondered how it had happened, who was rough as guts, the original country boy, and her the original townie girl, and maybe it just proved that opposites attract.
But maybe sames attract as well, because I was kissing him back.
It wasn't like kissing Lee -- Lee kissed softer, while Homer's mouth seemed to be all angles. He wasn't rough, though, and it wasn't bad. I mean, it was bad that we were doing it -- somehow it didn't feel right -- but it wasn't bad because it was so good.
After a minute or two I pulled away. I had to. 'Homer, we can't.'
'Why not?' He sounded like a spoiled brat for a minute.
'Oh, come on Homer. You just broke up with Fi this morning. I still don't know what's happening between Lee and me.' I felt helpless. 'We've been best mates for ages Homer, just give me a chance to get back to normal.'
'I don't want you going to America,' Homer said, frowning. 'What have they got for you over there? Maybe you'll be a star for a little while, like Finley said, but then you'll just be another Aussie they can ask about kangaroos and koala bears.' He spat this last bit -- one of Homer's little idiosyncrasies was about people calling koalas 'koala bears'. 'Why would you leave everything here behind?'
'I always wanted to travel with Corrie. I feel like now she's gone I should do it for her, see everything for her... maybe come back and tell her about it, I don't know.' It sounded crazy. 'I don't have to pay for this trip Finley's offering me -- if I don't go now I might not get to go at all.'
Homer sighed and gave the frying pan a kick. 'Bloody Hell El.' He sighed again.
'I don't know Homer. This might be something I should do for all of us. I could make some money out of this, and I'd bring it back for us. Mum and Dad and Gavin...' I stopped speaking. The truth was, this was where I had stopped thinking about it, ever since I'd talked to General Finley two days ago. I just didn't know if I could leave Mum and Dad and Gavin behind. I could live without the Australian bush and the farmland for a while -- after living in Hell for a year, I sometimes felt as if I could leave it behind forever -- but family was different, and Homer picked up on it like a shot.
'You wouldn't leave them would you El? You might leave me and Lee and everyone behind, but not your family, not after the war.'
'Don't try and make me feel guilty Homer!' I grabbed the frying pan, half thinking I might take a swing at his head, then stormed off up the track.
He didn't follow me straight away, and I almost stopped to see where he was, but that wasn't what Ellie did. That wasn't the way everyone knew her, and so I kept going, round a couple of corners, until I heard his big feet clump-clump-clumping along the track behind me and his breathless voice call, 'Ellie, wait!'
He'd picked up the rest of the junk that was lying out and about and was carrying it: a jar of Vegemite that had been well and truly licked clean, part of the wrapper from the Iced Vo-Vos Ryan had brought us, and a few other bits and pieces. He dropped it when he caught up to me, and pulled me into a rough hug.
'I'm sorry El, I didn't mean it like that. I know I wouldn't want to leave my family either, but I've been wanting to get out of here as much as you have. Matter of fact, I bet if you rang up Fi and asked her she'd say the same. We've spent long enough here. We should get out and do some good. We know what it's like; maybe we can make the rest of the world know what it's like too.' His breath was warm against my ear, his voice hurried.
I drew back and stared at him. 'You Homer? I thought you were happy as Larry here.'
'I thought so too,' he said in a low voice. 'I thought so too.' He coughed. 'Listen, maybe we should call up Lee and Kevin as well when we're talking to Fi. Maybe we should all be together again.'
'Homer, you're mad if you think Lee's going to leave his brothers and sisters.'
'Our parents can mind them for six months or so. And you know Kevin will jump at the chance.'
It was my turn to sigh, and I bent to pick up the bits Homer had dropped. 'Homer, I still think you're mad. But maybe it'll work.'
He laughed. 'That's the beauty of madness El, your plans are always wonderful. At least, everyone agrees with them like they are.'
I straightened up and looked up the track, which was growing more shadowed as the sun started to set. 'Well, Homer, we'll see. We'll see.' I started walking again, and he caught up with me, taking my hand in his big, work-roughened one.
We held hands all the way back to the house.