Short Story: ‘Count Backwards from Twenty’ by Melanie Napthine

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Magpies fluted as though they knew what would happen. The trees locked leaves metres above, barricading the sun. One of the women had asked in jest what the hell they were doing here, but no one answered. Someone laughed, a man’s laugh, sticky with uncoughed phlegm.

‘Let’s do it.’The Short Story

From the boot of the car, Gary hauled a long bag that rattled as though it held bones. ‘Come on.’ He was one of those who housed more energy than his limbs could make use of. It shimmered off him, his fingers were always curling and uncurling, he had a rapid blink of a tic. Dave set down his joke hat, a beer-can funnel, and gave a hand. Paulette took an end of the canvas while Leanne pulled apples from a bag in the back seat. They were sticky from the long journey but the children took them gladly. Their crunching in the vast quiet was like the sound of leaves breaking.

Every noise was amplified, giving them all a performer’s edge. They lifted the tent canvas with exaggerated swings of their arms. Twelve-year-old Abby kept glancing to the trees as though to an audience. She was a caretaking child, bossy said the younger ones, though she was the oldest, with the best ideas, and they never said no. Even stroppy Callan would mostly listen, and tolerated being grabbed by his elasticised pants when he wandered. Abby was Paulette’s, though not Dave’s, like the younger two. But together, anyway, they were everyone’s. Gary had a joke: he called every child whatsyername, he squinted and wondered if they were his. Little Liddy liked to say yes; she favoured Gary for no reason anyone could guess at. Mostly he didn’t look at her when she climbed his legs like tree limbs and fussed herself into his lap. He would carry on talking; he was steadily loquacious, with a lazy surface interest in everything that passed under his gaze. Liddy was a bug creeping his skin, though one that would never meet the underside of his thumb; still he’d shake her off eventually to fetch him a beer or pass him his lighter.

Dave and Leanne and Paulette laughed over the occult favour she showed. They called her his little girlfriend; they theorised: it had probably been his voice she’d heard more than any other in the womb, since none of them ever got a word in. Or maybe she was really his – Paulette would make amused slitty eyes – could be, look at the footballer legs on her. Dave would smile amused tolerance. He and Gary went back to Milsom St, three houses apart, and the Beringup cricket club, under-elevens.

They folded out chairs around the open esky. The children played hide-and-seek. Abby had Callan by the wrist; they were hunting together. The others slipped behind trees in the long seconds it took Abby to prod Callan to ten. They giggled, and dangled limbs from behind the slender trunks of gums. Abby made a show of puzzlement. ‘What about over there Cal?’ she told him. ‘I think I hear something.’ But he was corralled with effort, his kittenish attention snagging on interesting twigs, dropped leaves, the flick of a worm gone to ground.

Eventually Paulette announced bedtime. The smallest children shouted but Abby reminded them, ‘Tent guys. We get to sleep in a tent, us kids together.’ Liddy came then, wanting Callan. The two were closest in age, the babies, permitted much. ‘We’re sleeping together,’ Liddy announced, opening her sleeping bag. Leanne and Paulette doled kisses and sorted kicking feet from heads, and hands to the sides of their owners.

By the fire, Gary said something sharp and low, and Dave laughed. Leanne stirred. The fire, the booze, the lowering night, had her sleepy; also she’d done most of the driving. Gary was arking up with the grog and the intoxication of so much space in every direction. You couldn’t get a word in once Gary got going, no point trying. Though she envied sometimes how Paulette managed it. Could make Gary smile too, with the kind of back-in-your-box retorts Leanne wouldn’t have dared even if she could have dreamed them. Though Gary thought Paulette a troll, with thick thighs. Then, he called his own Callan a poof, even as he warmed a hand on his amber head.

The children did eventually sleep, or at least turned silent enough for the parents to forget them. So much space to be loud in; even Leanne found voice. They argued and drank, Gary took her on his knee. Dave fell asleep and no-one noticed until he snored suddenly.

‘What am I s’posed to do with him?’ wondered Paulette, when shaking his arm wouldn’t rouse him.

‘Leave him there,’ Gary told her.

‘Yeah but.’ She looked beyond their circle of light to where the trees began.

‘Don’t look at me. I’m not carrying him. Come on.’ The last was to Leanne, who got up sluggishly at the squeeze of Gary’s hand on her knee.

‘Well I’m not staying out here. It’s fucking freezing.’ Paulette wrapped her arms about herself and headed for the tent. ‘You wait while I get changed,’ she told Gary over her shoulder. ‘No peeking.’

‘You wish.’ His fingers made crescent prints in Leanne’s arm.

It was probably three in the morning (they told all who asked, later) that Dave stumbled through into the tent, after a struggle with the zip and tripping over Gary’s feet, some cussing. He fell in beside Paulette, who was out to it and never remembered groaning, and pushing away his cold hands.

Abby was first up. She’d always been their early riser, who got the kettle going and called through the house with elastic patience to wake them. Merciless though; she didn’t care for late nights or hangovers or Sundays for sleep-ins. That morning she got the fire going with newspaper and half a box of matches. She opened cans, sourced sticks to skewer bread on. And called, the while, for the rest to move their lazy bums. Indy came to help, her orange hair stuck in sleep-sweaty strands across her low forehead.

‘Get the grown-ups,’ Abby told her.

‘Liddy is,’ Indy told her. ‘Can we have pancakes?’

‘No. We’re having toast and beans. You can have Vegemite.’

Indy watched her. A milky light came from behind the trees but it was cold still; Abby’s bare arms were pimpled. She poured beans into the pan and Indy stuck her finger in. Abby smacked it. ‘You better get shoes on. There’s snakes here that move faster than you can blink.’

Indy looked at her toes. ‘Liddy doesn’t have shoes on.’

‘So? Anyway she should.’ Orange bubbles formed at the edges of the pan. A magpie made a gobbling call.

‘Where is Liddy?’ Abby asked then. Indy pointed at the parents’ tent with her elbow, her hands nested in the pockets of her hooded jumper.

‘Mum!’ Abby called. Her voice was rich as gum sap. They heard Gary swear, then Paulette stuck her head out of the tent flap. Her hair was wild and her eyes pouchy with imperfect wakefulness. ‘Morning,’ she told the girls. ‘Where’s the others?’

‘Sleeping,’ Abby said.

‘Only Jamie’s sleeping,’ Indy corrected. ‘Liddy went in with you.’ She pointed to Paulette. ‘I don’t know where Callan is.’

The Short Story

It wasn’t as easy as that, a start like a cup dropping, or a sudden blackout. Paulette had to check both tents, then yell at Dave to get up. Then ask the other children when, when had they last seen them, why hadn’t Indy told someone (Indy, ugly-mouthed, said they weren’t her children) and had anyone checked the car. Even then Abby didn’t understand, even with Gary pulling on his jeans outside and saying you’re fuckin kiddin me until Abby thought they might have been, even with lazy Leanne running toward the trees and crying. Paulette wouldn’t be convinced. She kept saying, those bloody two, you can’t leave them for a minute. They’ll be –– but she didn’t finish, though Abby could think of a hundred things. Playing hide-and-seek, collecting leaves, coiled up together at the bottom of the sleeping bag no-one had probably bothered to check properly.

And then they weren’t, and Dave found Cal’s dummy by the trees, and their shoes were still lined up out the front of the tent. And Paulette was crying.

Dave told Abby to watch the others. He and Gary went for the trees, Gary muttering that he’d kill them when he found them. Abby thought he mightn’t have been joking.

A bird made a rasping chark. Abby heard Gary call Liddy’s name, and wondered, which is it he is so worked about? Then was shocked at herself for the subsequent thought, which was: that if it must be only one of them they’d find, it ought to be Liddy. That then, was when tears finally burned at the edges of her eyes. Not for Liddy with her cracked little singing mouth and her insistence on skirts, but for the bubby Callan whose nappies they joked about and passed off on to each other, who Gary called little shit, who even Dave referred to as Snotty.

But Indy had hold of her jumper sleeve. ‘You said toast,’ she reminded Abby. Jamie said, ‘I want pancakes.’

A bird swooped, they winced at the shadow, heard leaves crack. Indy cried, ‘Abby!’

‘I can’t believe you two! I can’t believe how selfish! Liddy and Callan are missing and all you can think about is breakfast! You’re being brats!’

‘They’re just hiding,’ said Indy but when Abby wheeled on her, she turned uncertain. ‘I bet. They wanted to see the river.’

‘How do you know?’

‘They said, I heard Liddy say.’

Abby knew the meaning of river. ‘Go and tell my mum,’ she told Indy, who looked mutinous. ‘Now. They might already be drowning.’

Indy scarpered. Abby was left with Jamie, whose hung face was taking in bacon grease. He might never have had a sister.

The grown-ups were a long time coming back. Abby fed the two smaller kids, and let the remainder of their breakfast lie in the pan, beige pimples of grease forming at the edges of the uneaten eggs. Indy drew in her notebook with the butterfly cover. Jamie battled his Bakugan, placing them one by one behind him on the dirt. Abby sat by him, tidily stacking a pile of sticks. Thinking, remembering. Putting two and two together.

When, forty-five minutes later, the men came back through the trees, it was to find a police car there and Paulette and Leanne deep in troubled, gesticulating conversation with two officers. Abby, though, was calm. She knew what she’d seen, and could make sense of it now, to the police officers’ deft questioning.

Six days later Gary was arrested. No bodies, yet, no clues, no confession. Just Abby’s statement, the long shadow of a filled past and that ebullience, which required an outdoor setting for relief and which must have grated in the interview room as it could shut-in winter nights in the weatherboard house on Scotchmer Street.

The Short Story

They never did find the children. Four years later Callan’s disintegrating nappy was found by a stubby bush near the river. By then though, Gary was beyond absolution, even if recanting could have done it. Abby read the papers. She remembered of the day: orange beans bubbling in the pan, the magpies’ trembling calls, the hiss of a tinny opened, the dark shape against the side of the tent, that (sensible sixteen now) she knew might have been man, tree, bird or even dream. But also she recalled: the urine tint of Gary’s teeth, little Liddy on his lap, and his elsewhere gaze, as though he might really have been planning the journey that took the three of them – and they shared an antic spirit, if she thought about it – somewhere the ordinary rest of them would never be able to follow.


Melanie Napthine is a Melbourne-based writer with a particular fondness for short stories. In the couple of years since she began entering competitions, she has won the Margaret River Short Story Competition, the FAW award for an unpublished manuscript, the Boroondara short story competition, the Henry Lawson short story competition and the Ethel Webb Bundell literary awards. She has also been awarded and shortlisted in various international competitions, including the Dundee International Book Prize and the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Award. Her day job is in educational publishing, and any time left over is spent reading, running, travelling and parenting (not necessarily in that order).

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