Jake wanted his dad to be proud of him.
He knew his dad was interested in wars.
'Why?' Jake wanted to know.
'Wars shape the world,' his dad said. 'If you have a knowledge of past wars, you can better understand current politics.'
Jake didn't really know what his dad meant.
'I get it,' he said.
'Clever boy.' His dad smiled and ruffled his hair.
Jake felt six feet tall.
Jake couldn't wait to tell his dad about his new school project.
'Guess what,' he said, as soon as his dad got in the door.
His dad looked at Jake. 'What?'
'We have to do a big project at school,' Jake said. 'We have to choose a topic and then write about its history, make a story, write a poem, and do a poster. Then we have to present it all to the class.'
'Oh?' His dad was taking off his shoes in the foyer. Jake knew he should have waited till his dad was fully in the house before telling him about the project; that way he would've listened properly.
'I've already chosen my topic.'
'Oh?' His dad kept taking off his shoes.
'Guess what I chose.'
'World War I.'
It worked. Jake's dad was looking at him properly now.
'That's a big topic,' he said. Jake could tell from the way his dad was smiling and ruffling his hair that he was impressed. 'Clever boy.'
Next day Jake was walking home from school. It was a sunny autumn day. He'd usually stamp on the piles of leaves on the footpath to hear them crunch under his shoes. But today he ignored them. He was busy planning his project.
He was nearly at his driveway when he heard the Miller sisters next door, laughing at him as he went past. They always laughed, or poked their heads over the fence to call him names.
'Hee hee hee.'
Jake ignored them.
'If they don't like you, that's their problem, not yours,' his mum would always say.
Jake stopped at his gate and bumped it open with his bag. The latch was broken. His dad was going to fix it; he said he would, but he'd been busy.
The letterbox was stuffed with junk mail. The house's windows were dark. Jake was going to be home alone, again.
He was used to being home alone. He'd been doing it since he was nine. That was because, three years ago, his dad had decided to go back to university. That meant his mum had had to go back to working full-time. She did a lot of evening shifts because the money was better.
Jake's dad was away a lot in the evenings, too, because he had to go to lectures.
It was worst in winter, when it got dark by five o'clock. Jake wasn't scared of the dark, only of the bogyman who lived in the dark. Jake's friend Rodney told him about the bogyman. Rodney was always telling him stories like that. Jake said he didn't really believe in the bogyman, but he was always really careful to lock the doorsójust in case.
Now he walked up the stairs onto the veranda and stuck his hand in his pocket for the key.
It wasn't there!
He checked all his other pockets and then checked them again. He shook out his school bag but he couldn't find it anywhere. He'd lost it! He checked his pockets again. And then his bag. It was definitely gone.
Frantically, he tried the front door, knowing it would be locked, then turned around and hurried back up the footpath to see if he could find his key. He walked up the road for two blocks, scanning the pavement.
It was no use; he could've dropped it anywhere. He turned around and went home.
What if his parents had accidentally left the back door unlocked? He raced around the side of the house and up the steps but the back door was locked, too.
He tried to slide the bathroom window open, but it was shut tight. He thought about throwing a rock through the window, but he didn't. He knew his parents couldn't afford to get it replaced.
He checked his watch. It was four o'clock; his dad'd said he'd be back by seven.
Jake wondered what he going to do with himself all afternoon.
He supposed he could always read his book.
He'd borrowed a book on World War I from the school library for his project. He had to. He'd already looked in his parents' 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He loved sticking his nose into the pages of the old books; they smelled dry and musty, like his granddad's attic. He'd found a heap of information about the American Civil War and the Napoleonic Wars, but nothing on World War I. It didn't make sense. The First World War had been much bigger. They must have left it out by accident.
He went and found his dad and told him about the mistake.
His dad laughed.
'When did the First World War begin, Jake?'
Jake knew the answer.
'And when were these books printed?'
Jake looked at the spine of the book he was holding. He felt a flush creeping up his neck. '1911,' he said.
His dad laughed again.
'Why are you looking in those old books, anyway?'
'For my project.' Jake felt defensive.
'You know!' Jake raised his voice. 'My World War I project.'
Jake sat in a block of sun on the front veranda reading his library book.
The book was really good; there were photos of the soldiers and the no man's land the men had to run across to attack the enemy. There was a chapter on the Gallipoli landings and the Anzacs and the really hard going up the cliffs.
He was reading about the liceólice eggs used to hatch in the seams of the soldiers' clothes and drive them mad; he was getting itchy just thinking about itówhen something hit him in the side of his head like a bullet. It hurt! He heard squeals of laughter from the Miller sisters on the other side of the fence as the acorn they'd chucked at him rolled away; he hated them.
It was six o'clock. Jake was in the backyard down near the shed, throwing lemons in the compost bin. If he missed the bogyman would get him. He didn't really believe it, but it raised the stakes of the game.
It was getting dark so he'd have to stop in a minute. Pretending he was Glen McGrath, he fast bowled a lemon into the compost bin. And missed.
Nothing happened. That was because the bogyman wasn't real.
Then he heard a rustling.
He looked to where the noise was coming from. He could see a shape coming out of the rhododendrons. A huge dark shape óó
It wasn't real, it wasn't real, just the workings of Jake's over-active imagination and the shadows of the trees when they moved in the wind.
The shape advanced. Red eyes glowed.
It was the bogyman!
Jake screamed. He started to back away but his foot caught on a clump of grass and he fell. Scrambling to his feet he turned and tried to run towards the porch but his legs wouldn't move like he told them to.
He felt the cold wet hands of the bogyman circle his throat and tighten. He was going to die ...
Jake woke with a start. He was drenched in sweat. The veranda was in shadow. He sat up and screamed.
The Miller sisters were standing over him, staring.
'Why are you lying on the veranda with a foot mat over you?' said Adele.
It's none of your business, Jake thought. He'd finished his book and felt like a nap but it didn't feel right to sleep with nothing over you. The foot mat had covered his chest and the book had been his pillow.
'I just am,' he said.
'Why?' Julianne asked.
'I'm locked out of the house.'
'I lost my key.'
The Miller sisters looked at each other and giggled; they loved it.
'Why are you here by yourself?' Julianne pestered.
Jake wanted them to go away. 'I just am.'
'Where's your mum?'
'Your mum has to work to support your dad,' Julianne said.
'Your mum's the breadwinner,' Julianne said.
She put her hands on her hips. 'Your mum has to work because your dad doesn't want to.'
'He does too. He's studying at university to get a PhD.'
Jake was proud that his dad was getting a PhD. His dad said that people would have to call him 'Doctor'.
'Our mum says that your dad's a professional student.'
Jake didn't really know what that meant, but he didn't think it sounded like a good thing.
'He is not.'
'Get lost or I'll punch you one,' Jake said, standing up.
It was seven o'clock. Jake's dad would be home any minute now.
Jake huddled on the front steps with his arms around his legs. It was freezing. He was hungry. He wanted his mum to drive up and see how cold and miserable he was. He wanted her to hug him and to bring him inside and to make him a hot chocolate with plenty of whipped cream and to give him a whole biscuit out of the jar instead of the half he always had to share with her.
A car was coming; he listened to the engine.
It wasn't his dad.
Jake checked his watch. It was one minute past seven.
Any minute now.
Ages later, Jake checked his watch again. It was ten minutes past seven.
Any minute now.
He sat and waited. It was so cold his teeth were chattering.
The stars were out; that meant the ground would be covered in frost in the morning.
'Hurry up.' He said it aloud.
A car was coming up the road.
For a second he thought it was his dad, slowing down like he did over the speed hump so he wouldn't ruin the suspension, but it wasn't; it was someone else.
He sat and waited.
Any minute now.
Jake worried that his dad was mad at him.
He'd yelled at his dad last night. He didn't mean to, but he couldn't help it.
It was after tea. Jake had been cutting out pictures of soldiers from his dad's Time magazines for his poster. It was really fiddly, being careful not to snip off the soldiers' ears or noses as you cut around them with the scissors. He stacked the soldiers in a neat pile next to his folder on the carpet when he finished. His dad stepped on the pile as he walked past in his socks.
'Dad! Get off!' Jake shouted.
'What?' His dad looked around and then at the floor. 'Oh, sorry. I didn't see them.'
Jake stared at the pile of crumpled soldiers.
'What are they for?' his dad asked.
'For my project,' Jake told him.
Jake couldn't believe it. His dad had forgotten.
'I told you!' he yelled, 'I'm doing a project on World War One.'
His dad wasn't coming home.
It was nine o'clock and his dad must have died in a car accident. Jake remembered how he'd yelled at his dad the night before and he knew that it was his fault. He was being punished.
His chin was on his knees; his teeth were chattering frantically.
Please God, don't let my dad be dead, Jake prayed.
He was huddled on the back porch now. It was pitch dark. He could see light from the Millers' house through the rhododendrons.
A hair-raising growl came from out of the branches of the cabbage tree.
His heart stopped.
It was the bogyman.
'Please, no,' he pleaded. He backed in closer to the wall as the leaves in the cabbage tree shook wildly and a dark shape swooped down the trunk and bounded across the lawn.
It wasn't the bogyman. It was a possum. A fat one with stubby legs and a thick tail. Jake let out his breath and wiped his frozen hands on his jumper. He felt like crying; he couldn't help it. He was cold and hungry and his dad had been killed in a car accident.
Another car was coming up the road.
Jake listened. The car was slowing down over the speed hump.
He knew the sound of the engine. He couldn't run fast enough, across the porch, feeling the planks bouncing under him, down the steps, past the rhododendron bushes, nearly tripping over the hose his dad hadn't wound up properly, past the bathroom window with its torn flyscreen; straight into the yellow beam of headlights that was coming up the driveway.
Thank you God, thank you, Jake was swallowing back the sobs as he watched his dad get out of the car.
'What are you doing out here?' his dad asked him. 'Why aren't the lights on?'
Jake couldn't speak. He couldn't believe it. It was all better now. His dad was home. He took a couple of shaky breaths. 'I couldn't get in. I lost my key.'
His dad laughed. 'Why didn't you go across to the neighbours' house?' he asked. 'They would have let you in and given you something to eat.'
'Not the Millers.'
His dad laughed again.
'Where were you?' Jake asked. 'You said you'd be home by seven.'
'I went out for dinner with some of the other students,' his dad said.
Jake followed his dad up the steps. It didn't matter that he was cold and hungry; as long as his dad was alive. He bent down and picked up his library book from the front veranda.
'I read a book for my project before it got dark,' he told his dad.
'That's good,' his dad said as he unlocked the door. 'What project?'