Outback Heroes (Young Adult adventures from Australia)
Three amazing adventures...
Joan of Shark
Read the first chapter of Perisher
The first time I saw Joanie Thomas was just an ordinary day at high school. It was history lesson—last class of the day—and I'm clock-watching. Only thirty minutes to go. That's when this pretty girl comes rushing into the room, walks up to the teacher's desk, and hands her a note.
“Excuse me. I'm new. The office told me to give you this.”
Miss Walker reads the note while I'm feeling sorry for the girl. Starting a new school is bad enough, but midway through second term—and halfway through last lesson? That's a horror story! Anyway, I get it why Miss Walker doesn't seem too impressed, gives the girl the once-over, then stares pointedly at her jeans and shirt. The rest of us go quiet—and in my case— interested.
Miss Walker pushes her glasses higher up her nose. Uh-Oh. That means she's totally pinged off. “Kind of late to be arriving to class, don't you think, Joan?”
“Joanie. My name is Joanie Thomas.”
“Joanie Thomas? I stand corrected.” Miss Walker sighs. “Oh well, find yourself a spare seat.”
The girl has my full attention as she stomps her way towards the spare seat next to me. I say “stomps” because she's wearing cowboy boots. So I fold as much of my own grasshopper legs as possible under my desk, to give her more room.
“Yes, Miss Walker?”
“When will you have your books, and school uniform?”
“I'll wear my uniform tomorrow, Miss Walker. And I should have all my books by then.”
Short answers. I shouldn't have too much trouble holding my own in a conversation with this girl.
“Good. Now just for today, perhaps Riley Williams might allow you to read along with him.”
Like I would object.
“No worries.” I whisper. She pulls her chair up beside me, so that's when I get my first close-up look at Joanie, and the remainder of our history lesson flies right out the window. Long black hair, which she constantly twirls around her fingers. And a refreshing blast of peppermint every so often, when she blows an offending curl away from her pretty green eyes.
“I love history.” she whispers. “Even if I'm only here for half of today's lesson. Hope you don't mind sharing your book with me.”
Sadly, liking history is one subject we won't be able to agree on. “My name's Riley Williams.”
“Yes, I heard the teacher say your name,” she mumbles, her head in my book.
Normally, knowing each other's name, helps you get to know each other faster. Good thing, too, because I sense Joanie isn't a girl to ask many questions. So I start the ball rolling. “Where are you living?” Miss Walker is moving around the classroom gathering up yesterday's homework, so I keep my voice low. Good. That means the lesson is officially over.
“Perisher Valley. We just moved into the Cooper place.”
“You live in the Valley? Hey, so do I. You going to be catching the school bus?” I stand, take a few steps to leave and hear her clomping along behind me— except I run into Miss Walker. Our teacher is a real shorty, so I converse with the top of her head, as usual.
“Riley. Where's your homework? Didn't you understand what I wanted you to do?”
Darn it. I didn't want to have to explain in front of Joanie. “I'll bring it tomorrow for sure, Miss Walker.” Then we stroll out to where the Valley bus is waiting, and I'm wondering—should a guy wait to be invited to sit next to this pretty Outback girl?
The bus is crowded, so she plonks herself down in a window seat, then glances up at me. That's when I completely morph into my true self. A total dork. Which is why I can't believe it when she moves over and I feel this vacant grin devour my face. So I fit as much of me as I can on the seat beside her and notice she's hanging onto an overloaded backpack. “Want me to put that up on the overhead shelf, so you can see out the window?” She smiles and nods, so I lift the thing up to the shelf above her head. “Wow! That's quite a load. Got far to walk from the bus?”
“No, thank goodness. The bus stops right outside our house.”
She has this cute dimple in her chin, which appears whenever she smiles, and next minute I'm wondering —how many face muscles does it take to smile? And are any extra muscles required to produce a dimple? Are you nuts, Williams? A pretty girl wants you to sit beside her, and you're wondering how many muscles it takes to smile? I'll google that one at home, though. The structure of the human body fascinates me.“I like your cowboy boots.”
“Thanks. I'm from Coober Pedy, in the Outback. We don't wear school uniforms there, just jeans, shirts and boots. But I'll wear the school uniform from now on. Except for my boots. They stay.”
“Think you're gonna like the snow country?”
“Probably. Although I consider myself an Outback girl at heart. Still, Perisher Valley is a really small town, inaccessible and remote like Coober Pedy, so it's just a different kind of Outback.”
“Interesting way to put it. Made any friends yet?”
“Not really. Well, sort of.”
“There's not much to do in the Valley. Apart from winter sports, sled-dog rides, and mountain climbing.”
“Sled-dog rides sound fun. Have you ever tried that?”
Oh man. A girl and I are talking, and for once it happens to be a subject I know plenty about. So, when she turns away from the window, I let rip. “Sled-dogs are what I do. My family used to train sled-dog teams. Big winter tourist turnover, but the dogs take a lot of care year-round and my dad's not involved anymore. Now he's a respiratory specialist.”
“What about all your sled-dogs?”
“Sold them to a neighbor, but I still work there, so I'm cool with it. Dad's way happier working at the hospital. Oops! Dropped my pen.” I bend down to retrieve the half-sized pen I like to chew on when I'm nervous. I've actually learned some pretty good tricks on precisely how far I can dangle that pen from my mouth without dropping it.
“Wow, I bet you miss your dogs, though.”
“I see them almost every day. I have my own dog, too.” Chewing away, I'm feeling more confident now. Totally in the zone.
“Yes, and no. He's a sled-dog, but not a husky. Ding's a dingo, actually. I trained him myself.”
“You trained a dingo? Awesome! I didn't think you could keep a dingo as a pet.”
“Ding's one-tenth husky, so on that technicality, I was able to get him a dog license.”
I glance out the window and get a shock. “You said you moved into the old Cooper place, and we're nearly
there. Will you be catching the bus tomorrow?”
“Yes. Dad works from his Canberra office, mostly. And Mom doesn't drive much, these days.”
And then the bus must have hit a ditch, because she bottoms out so hard Joanie's backpack gets jolted off the overhead shelf, and comes hurtling down towards her. Would have hit her too, except I'm faster. Riley Williams doesn't have long arms for nothing. I swoop the thing up, mid-flight, with one hand. And I'm still hanging onto it when the bus flings her sideways and she lands on my chest. Her soft hair brushes my face and I'm not complaining when she thanks me.
By now I figure my cheeks must be beet red. Happens when you're afflicted with carrot-top hair and a complexion to match. My friend Callum, who's also a redhead, found out that we never go bald—fair compensation, I guess. Darn! If my face gets any hotter someone will be calling Triple Zero to report an emergency.
“I can't believe you did that. My backpack is so heavy. Oh, I met one girl. Lisa. Know her?”
“Lisa, the gastroenterologist? Oh sure, I know Lisa.”
“Why do you call her that?”
“Well, Lisa is crazy about hair, see? Wants to take a hairdressing course. But her old man is a gastroenterologist, so he's forcing her to follow in the family business.”
Joanie's mouth is wide open, her eyes nearly as wide. “Oh, that's terrible! Poor Lisa! My Dad's totally obsessed when it comes to medical science, but he would never want me to make a career of that, or something I didn't like. It must be a huge disappointment for Lisa.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Now I'm feeling ashamed because we all thought it was a big joke about Lisa.
“Anyway, I'm glad you told me. If I get to know her better I'll try to help her. We all need someone to tell our problems to, don't we?”
“Yeah. Always helps to talk to someone. Hey— since you're new—you can call on me if you need a friend.” Idiot! That's a line from a kid's movie. Very mature, dude. Time for a change of subject, so I look down at her tiny feet. “You gonna' cave on the cowboy boots?”
“I'll wear regulation clothes like everybody else. But my boots stay.”
By now I'm finding Joanie strangely compelling. She's like...how can I describe it? Like someone on a mission for something. Intelligent, but cute.
“Thanks for your offer of someone to talk to, Riley. I may take you up on that one day.”
With those green eyes of hers boring into mine, I don't totally get her drift, so I improvise. “No probs. Glad to help with science, math, history, practically any subject other than languages.”
“No, I wasn't thinking of schoolwork, I'm okay with all that. I do have a problem I need help with, though. It's with my parents.”